I’ve always found cinema a fascinating world. Why is the protagonist framed by pillars? Would we know one of the characters is walking into trouble if no ominous music was playing in the background? Why does this scene have a lot of reds?
At J-School, we had the option to learn cinema analysis and interpretation. I had opted for other electives, and had given this as my last preference. As luck would have it, I was assigned this elective thanks to a mystifying algorithm that the management used.
I was disappointed when I got the news, but I couldn’t help but feel happy that THE Baradwaj Rangan was going to be taking these classes. Soon enough, I realised that this was one of the best things to happen at ACJ for me. My latent curiosity found an outlet, and it was pure joy analysing movies with him (side note: he is a very kind and non-judgemental teacher).
So here I am, trying to apply what I learnt through the Talking Cinema elective.
In this post, I attempt to interpret the visual storytelling that permeates Bajirao Mastani, a 2015 Hindi film by Sanjay Leela Bhansali.
Kashibai’s character progression
Bajirao marries Kashi as dictated by tradition. She is emotionally expressive, religious, and wears her heart on her sleeve.
She is introduced with lamps around her – symbolic of her passionate nature.
She wears colours that indicate passion too: reds, yellows, orange, maroon, etc. Even her eyes are red-rimmed.
As the film progresses, she comes to represent Bajirao’s duties as a Peshwa- fighting battles, within and outside. She remains the dutiful wife, sticking to rigid rules: We see her in square/rectangular spaces, which in Indian context represents the masculine, which is inflexible, conscientious, and rule-adhering.
She is so duty conscious that she welcomes Mastani with the traditional aarti, invites her to participate in the palace’s celebrations, and takes care of Bajirao till his death. The descent of her life from light to darkness is also shown visually – her scenes are placed in well-lit spaces, vibrant interiors, she wears vibrant colours. As she comes to terms with Bajirao belonging to Mastani more than to her, she is seen in progressively dark spaces and wears cool tones. Sample: the scene where she asks Bajirao to never step into her quarters again, and starts blowing out the lamps; the next being her informing Bajirao she’s pregnant with his child, in a gloomy garden- she wears blue, her hair is loose, there are very few lamps.
Towards the end of the movie, she wears the palest of colours and whites too- symbolic of her soul having detached from her emotions. Her face is almost always placid, rarely expressing any emotion, her eyes seldom shed tears. Priyanka is hands down the best thing about this movie.
Mastani’s character progression
Mastani is portrayed as a calm person who never loses her composure – even when expressing intense emotions. A lot of her scenes feature placid water. When she’s happy, when her heart’s aflutter, we see her amidst fountains.
She wears the most subtle shades of colours, her home is set amidst a still lake.
When she is experiencing intense emotions, they’re denoted by intense colours – case in point – the Mohe Rang Do Lal song sequence: she wears muted colours, but she bears her palm as she looks at Bajirao and we see red.
When she is sequestered in a run-down palace by Bajirao’s mom, everything around her is black- you can almost feel the heaviness.
Her relationship with Bajirao alludes to the Krishna-gopika equation – she is moved to tears by her love for him – a common occurrence in poems by Krishna devotees on their divine experiences. Even Mohe Rang Do Laal is a song sung to Krishna.
As with the mythical god’s story, the Bajirao-Mastani relationship doesn’t take into account ethics. She leaves everything for him, and is willing to go to great lengths to be with him, yet she doesn’t mind that Kashi will be the one who will be acknowledged as the wife; she understands Kashi’s hurt and doesn’t serve platitudes. The lack of regret on the couple’s part about hurting Kashi and other people, is representative of the fluid morality their relationship shows – and is denoted by circles – the feminine principle – free-flowing, flexible.
As the movie progresses, we see Mastani is deep reds and browns, her spaces are more fire than water.
That is, where Kashi moves into a non-attached space in her relationship with Bajirao, we see Mastani losing her cool, needing to assert her love, her relationship, her beliefs.
The ethereal Deepika is the apt pick: her fluid motions, minimal makeup, soft voice and subtle expressions also reflecting her – water – the feminine.
The literary works examined in this section are thought of as model literature for the ideal Tamil society. We delve into the glorious Sangam period literature that has been used to substantiate the egalitarian character of ancient Dravidian society. Considered to be rich in ethical codes and moral standards, their undeniably misogynistic streak jumps out at anyone who reads them (except maybe those blind to their privilege). Public intellectuals of Tamil society seem to have ignored, or worse, not considered the gender discrimination that fills these works. For this section I’ve relied on Balu S’s work available on Gender Awareness Promoters; he has studied Sangam era literature from a gender perspective.
Here is what he had to say when I asked him about gender roles in Sangam literature:
I have heard people contending that women were considered or treated equally in Sangam period (period disputed but roughly between the years c. 350 BCE to 300 CE) and I wondered what this equality meant. The arguments for ‘women were treated as equal in Sangam’ would be in the lines of, women were educated, some women chose their partners, women learnt and performed arts and they were poets etc. However compared to the privileges enjoyed by the men, as could be derived from the literature, the status of women was significantly less. They were educated but only at home, whereas men went out for education and women could perform art only in the confines of their homes mostly.
He goes on to quote examples from Sangam literature. He talks about Tholkappiyam, considered the master guide for Sanga Ilakkiyam (Sangam literature). Tholkappiyam is divided into three books—Ezhuthadhikaram (formation of words), Solladhikaram (syntax), Poruladhikaram (conveying thoughts) (wikipedia.org). In his article, Balu talks about the third, Poruladhikaram, which defines “how a man and a woman should be and should be portrayed” in literary works. He goes on to quote from the work, which talks about what the characteristics of the ideal woman (heroine of a story) should be:
Translation: Timidity, bashfulness, and credulity Are the ruling traits in Woman (heroine)
Accham means timidity, madam means modesty, and naanam means bashfulness. Balu says that here madam also denotes that though the heroine of the story is knowledgeable, she will not display it. This is a clear indication, then, of the insecurity felt by men who feel threatened by women who surpass them intellectually.
The forthcoming section is mostly excerpts from Sangam literature with translations. They’re from Balu’s collection; I’ve tweaked the translation a bit to suit my needs. I’ve added them as support for my conclusion that the Sangam era was as patriarchal and misogynistic as present day Tamil Nadu. I’ve linked the sources so if you want to start a discussion on this post, please do your research.
Translation: As the heroine goes by herself Seeking the hero she has fallen in love with Or as she says such words As are free fromwillfulness and guile, Armed she is With the saying of the ancestors: “Bashfulness is of greater worth than life itself, And chastity unsullied stands superior to bashfulness” And such things as lofty as these Constitute the thematic modes of Akam love proper
Clearly, chastity and bashfulness were integral to the ideal heroine; according to Balu the claim that these are the words of ancestors was “probably attempts to give a stamp of credibility and authority to the prescribed qualities of a woman”.
Here’s another example:
Thar pugazh kilavi kizhavan mun kilaththal Yeth thirathaanum kizhaththikku illai- Murpada vaguththa irandu alangadaiye
Karpiyal 178, Tholkappiyam
Translation: The heroine, Whatever be the circumstances, Is not given to self-praise In the presence of the hero Save the two context aforesaid
Let’s look at what Tholkappiyam says are the ideal characteristics of the man, the hero of the story:
Perumaiyum uranum aadoomaena
Kalaviyal 95, Tholkappiyam
Translation: Nobility of bearing and fortitude Marks the man (hero)
While the main text is brief, the commentary, or Urai, list more qualities, says Balu: education, valour, charity, cooperation, impartiality, fearlessness, brilliance, rigidity, and bravery, to name a few. This is proof, that “a woman was invested with patriarchal notions of ideal attributes and so was the man”.
Tholkappiyam also specifies that self-praise by the hero is a good thing:
Kizhavi munnaarth thar pugazh kilavi Kizhavon vinaivayin uriya yenba
Karpiyal 179, Tholkappiyam
Translation: Self-praise marks the hero’s utterance In the presence of the heroine As he sets out on his mission Parting from her (the heroine)
TL;DR: Self-praise is acceptable if you are a man/you’re the hero. In fact, it was a norm (still is?).
Tholkappiyam also talks about who among them (hero and heroine) has to be superior:
Synopsis: When a woman and man are in love, and the man turns out to have qualities that are superior to that of the woman, then it does not matter if he is of equal stature.
It was of utmost importance then, that the hero not be portrayed as inferior to the heroine.
The next time I find myself needing to explain fragile masculinity, I’m going to quote this.
Let’s move on and see how specific traits were expected to manifest in man (hero) and woman (heroine) in Sangam literature: first up, valour.
In Sangam poetry, both women and men are praised for their valour and courage, but there is a marked difference. The men are praised for going into battle, fighting fearlessly, and dying rather than running away from the battlefield. As for the women, their bravado and courage are defined in relation to the men in their lives: they are deemed courageous if they face the death of their husband or son in an uncomplaining manner and felt proud about it.
Translation: When she heard many say, “The son of that old woman, Her veins showing, dried, delicate arms with Loose skin, and shrunk stomach like lotus leaves, Showed his back and ran from ferocious battle”, She was enraged and said, “I will cut off These breasts that fed him, if that is true”, And turned over every body lying in the blood-soaked battlefield She finally found her son Who was chopped to pieces, And she felt happier than she did When she gave birth to him!
This also serves as an indication of the ideal woman was expected to live her life serving male interests.
While the ideal way for women to display courage and valour were thus defined by the Tholkappiyam, there are problematic Sangam love poems that follow the done-to-death trope of the hero harassing, or stalking, or coercing the heroine into accepting him or consenting to a sexual encounter. In some poems, the woman is treated as an object, and any attention showered on her by her man is lapped up, and seen as the man being gracious.
Translation: The literate men say, While there occasions his separation (from the heroine) In pursuit of harlots The hero does not keep off from the heroine During the twelve days Since the day of her menstruation
Here the poem takes on a glorifying tone, while describing how the hero does not keep away from the heroine during her fertile period in spite of concurrently pursuing sexual relationships with other women. This is seen as a mark of goodness on the part of the hero, and seen as a favour done by the hero to the heroine. Compare this with how chastity was defined as more important than life itself for women (Kaliviyal 111, Tholkappiyam, mentioned earlier in this chapter). Men, in stark contrast, were allowed to court and have sexual relationships with multiple women, before and after marriage.
Going by the poems in Akanaanooru, eloping was accepted, as far as the woman married the man she eloped with. Thus, the virtuous woman was sexually exclusive. Further, a woman’s karpu (chasitity), as defined in Tholkappiyam, was taught to her by her husband (Karpiyal 152, Tholkappiyam).
As for expressing her feelings to the man she is interested in, the woman could do so only be suggestive because of her femininity dictates it (a.k.a acham, madam).
Translation: Bashfulness and credulity Being ingrained in feminine nature The passion of love of the heroine Will find expression Through suggestive modes And through the context of the situation And not through explicit utterance
Here is yet another example of how the woman is expected to to resort to non-verbal responses, as against being plain expressive:
Sol edhir mozhidhal arumaithu agalin Alla kootrumozhi avalavayinaana
Kalaviyal 108, Tholkappiyam
Translation: Rare as it is In the feminine nature of the heroine To respond in verbal utterance To the hero’s overtures of love She is wont to non-verbal suggestive responses
Even if the wife was distressed by her husband’s dalliances with other women, she could not express it directly. She can express her hurt through indirect means: for instance, her friend would talk to him about it (Nachinarkiniyar, Kalaviyal 158, Tholkappiyam).
Coming back to the trope of how a woman falls in love with the man in spite of coercion and harassment, here is a popular poem that embodies it:
Translation: Listen my friend who wears bright bangles! That wild brat Who used to kick our little sand houses With his leg, Pull flower strands from our hair, And yank the striped ball from us Causing us agony, Came one day when my mother and I were home. “Oh, people of this house, Please give me some water to drink,” he said. Mother said to me, “Pour water in the thick gold vessel, And give it to him to drink, my bright-jewelled daughter.” And so I went unwittingly, He seized my bangled arm and pressed it, Shocking me. “Mother, see what he did,” I shouted. My mother, distressed, came running with a shriek, “He had hiccups while drinking water”. Mother stroked his back gently, And asked him to drink slowly. He looked at me from the corner of his eyes, giving me loaded looks, And smiled a lot, that thief!
“It is constructed as a romantic situation but the subtext is clearly misogynistic: the boy harasses girls while young and while grown up he has the audacity to grab her hand, smug with the notion that she would not put him in trouble. True to word the woman recounts the incident to her friend as if he was mischievous and naughty now with the added observation of him giving her ‘killer looks.’ There was obviously no concept of sexual harassment or sexual consent that either sexes had to be aware about”, writes Balu.
Another example, where male entitlement is more explicit (Kabilar, Kalithokai 62):
Yeiyekthu oththan, naan ilan thannodu Maevaem yenbaarayum maevinan kaippatrum
Translation: Hey, boy, have you no shame? You’re trying to unite with me By gripping my hand, even if i don’t want to
Translation: Just because it is sweet for you, Is it right to forcibly cause distress to others?
Sudar thodee! Potraai kalai, nin mudhukkuraimai; potrik kael! Vaettarku inidhu aayin alladhu, neerkku inidhu yendru Unbavo, neer unbavar? Seivadhu arikallaen, yaadhu seivenkolo Ai vaai aravin idaipattu, nai vaaraa?
Translation: Bright-bangled one! Stop analysing it. Use your intellect. Listen, Thirsty people drink water because they find it sweet, Not because the water finds itself sweet. I do not know what to do. Ancient wisdom says it is okay To take away a girl To save her from the five-headed snake
Translation: He doesn’t listen to me, He is wasting away; If that is wisdom, maybe We weren’t strangers in the past; Maybe I was united with him. Is there any opposition to that thought, my heart?
The man justifies, in fact normalises his disregard for her consent, by drawing the parallel of a thirsty person’s need for water. The woman, too, gives in, concluding that if this were wisdom, then maybe she was wrong about her consent being important at all, and that they were united in the past.
Apart from steamrolling and gaslighting, there was always blackmailing:
Translation: If love ripens, one will Wear an erukkam garland With pointed buds, Ride on a palmyra frond horse, Suffer ridicule on the streets, And even more.
This practice, “madalerudhal”, appears to be “a kind of blackmailing technique intended to intimidate the woman”, says Balu. He notes that women were not allowed the liberty to do the same, quoting from Tholkappiyam:
Translation(V Murugan): No strand of akam love behaviour Does enjoin on the heroine To ride the horse of palmyra stems, As it goes contrary to the norms Of feminine propriety.
Clearly, it was considered unfeminine for a woman to be audacious, while the man had all the freedom to be what he wanted to be. While this is a rule for writing characters for literary work, it can be taken as an indication about what was accepted by society at large.
Further, according to the guidelines laid down in the Tholkappiyam, the woman could have the upper hand in the relationship during a lover’s tiff, where the man is submissive if only to placate her. In another set of verses, the Tholkappiyam establishes that a man privileges a woman by marrying her (Credit: Balu).
Widowhood reduced a woman to a sub-human state. Women who lost their husbands were made to shave their heads, stay away from society, and had to practice extreme austerity, such as eat cooked seeds of water lily:
Ivan urai vaazhkkaiyo, aridhe! Yaanum Mannuru mazhith thalaith then neer vaara, Thondru thaam udutha amm pagaith theriyal Siru vell aambal alli unnum Kazhi kala magalir pola, Vazhi ninaindhiruththal, adhaninum aridhe!
Marakothu Nappasalaiyar, Puranaanooru 280
Translation (George Hart): For you to stay alive in this world Is hard! But far harder it is for me to think Of living like the widows who have shed their ornaments Water trickling down my Shaved head caked with mud, And for food (eat) the seeds Of the small water lily That was his garland of war
As is evident from the aforesaid verses, widows committed sati to escape the sub-human life of widowhood. The practice of a woman committing suicide after the husband dies is mentioned in Tholkappiyam. Sati was practiced during Sangam age: literature from the age talks about thipaaidal, or walking into flames. The act of a woman walking into her husband’s funeral pyre is also mentioned, and she is also hailed as a “good, great woman”. [Tholkappiyam, Porul 79].
The qualities espoused by Sangam literature with respect to women: chastity, unquestioning devotion to the husband, dying when the husband does, pride in having birthed a male child, are all means to the end: maintaining the status quo—male dominance and patriarchy, through misogynistic strictures forced upon women. “It is an age old technique to praise or glorify some actions / nature of suppressed that is advantageous to the suppressor”, says Balu S.
The influence of such glorified discriminatory and misogynistic values can be seen in Thiruvalluvar’s works, discussed in the next section.
The Thirukkural is an important body of work in Tamil literature, from the post-Sangam period. It occupies pride of place in Tamil culture.
The Thirukkural is often described as a reflection of the true character of Tamil society (Dayanand Bharati, 2015). Going by his kurals or couplets, Valluvar saw women as either chaste, husband-worshipping wives, prostitutes who sold their love for money, or as persons whose advice when heeded will make one less of a man.
With Valluvar, the meaning of karpu went on to include unconditional obedience and devotion to the husband, in addition to chastity. He also believed that the husband’s happiness and the family’s happiness depended on her chastity and unconditional submission to tending to the household and family. He also accorded supernatural powers to women who worshipped their husbands.
Following are examples (Poovai Amudhan, 2011):
Araththuppaal, Vaazhkkaith thunainalam
peNNin perundhakka yaavula kaRpennum thiNmaiuN daagap peRin
Translation: There is no greater treasure than a woman who guards her chastity.
Translation: A man who does not have a chaste wife cannot walk with the pride of a lion in front of those who scorn him.
mangalam enpa manaimaatchi matru adhan nankalam nanmakkat peru
Translation: A virtuous wife is a household’s blessing, and the crowning jewel of such a household is to have good children.
Note that this section (“Vaazhkkaith thunainalam” or “life partner’s well-being”) entirely talks about what the ideal wife should be, and how her husband’s well-being depends on her devotion and virtuousness. There is not a single kural in this section that talks about what is required of a husband in order for the wife to be happy, though the section is titled with a gender neutral term (vaazhkkai thunai or life partner). The notion that a woman’s chastity needs to be guarded, and that she has to put her chastity above all else, and Valluvar recommending self-control, echo Manu Smriti’s assumption that women are sexual beings with uncontrollable sex drive (Chakravarti U, 1993).
Kaamathuppaal, uruppunalan azhidhal
In this section, all couplets talk about the woman yearning for her partner. No couplet talks about a man’s longing for his wife. Even the couplets that are told from the man’s point of view, talk about how the woman seems to grow sad at the slightest sign of him parting from her physically. This could be a deliberate decision, and serves Valluvar’s ideal of the virtuous woman being the submissive one in the relationship. Here are a few examples:
nayandhavar nalkaamai solluva poalum
pasandhu panivaarum kan
Translation: These eyes that shed tears seem to betray the lack of reciprocation from my beloved.
thanandhamai saala arivippa poalum
manandha-naal veengiya thoal
Translation: My weak shoulders which had swollen with happiness on our wedding day, now announce our separation to the world.
muyangiya kaikalai ookkap pasandhadhu
paindhotip paedhai nudhal
Translation: I loosened my tight embrace, thinking she would be in pain, and her bright forehead darkened.
muyakkidaith thanvali poazhap pasapputra
paedhai perumazhaik kan
Translation: A cold breeze came between us even as we were in embrace, and at the thought of that slightest distance her large, soft eyes dimmed.
As can be seen, when the woman talks, it is about how much she longs for the husband’s proximity. When the kural takes on a man’s voice, it talks about how much the woman misses his proximity. All sections of Kaamathuppaal, Padarmelindhirangal, talks about lust and longing, all in the woman’s voice.
Moreover, the Thanipadarmigudhi section of Kaamathuppaal even lays down how a woman is not respected if her lover does not reciprocate her love:
veezhap patuvaar kezhee-iyilar thaamveezhvaar
veezhap pataa-ar enin
Translation: Even if she is beloved by the entire world, she is devoid of luck if she is not loved by her beloved.
This kural sums up the idea that a woman’s worth is tied to her partner and his affections. This section, too, uses the woman’s voice. No couplet talks about a man dealing with rejection.
Valluvar, too, thought it was not within female propriety to explicitly talk about feelings:
penninaal penmai udaiththenpa kanninaal
kaamanoai solli iravu
Translation: Expressing her longing through her eyes, and thus asking for her lover to end the longing, makes a woman more feminine than femininity itself.
He also talks about submission being a sign of a woman’s love for her partner:
Translation: If a woman’s lust exceeds the size of a palmyra fruit, she will not desire to feign anger (oodal) even as much as the size of a grain of millet.
In sum, the entire Kaamathuppaal section portrays women as either longing for their husband’s return from abroad, or for their lover’s acceptance and reciprocation. They also resorted to feigning anger (oodal) as a way of getting the man’s attention and affection. There are very few couplets that talk with the man’s voice, and even those talk about how the man’s wife/lover longs for them, and is slavish in their worship of the relationship.
In this section, Valluvar deems it disgraceful for a man to listen to his wife’s advice, or to let the wife take the lead in any manner:
manaivizhaivaar maaNpayan eydhaar vinaivizhaiyaar
vaeNtaap poruLum adhu
Translation: A man who submits to his wife out of love, can neither fulfill his duties nor engage in good deeds.
paeNaadhu peNvizhaivaan aakkam periyadhoar
naaNaaka naaNuth tharum
Translation: All the wealth that a man possesses will bring him shame if he prioritises his wife’s wishes over his duties.
This is indicative of how much of a say the wife could have in decisions made by the husband.
illaaLkaN thaazhndha iyalpinmai eGnGnaandrum
nallaaruL naaNuth tharum
Translation: He who unnecessarily forgoes his masculinity and surrenders to the wife, will feel ashamed when among the good.
peNNaeval seydhozhukum aaNmaiyin naaNutaip
peNNe perumai udaiththu
Translation: It is better to be a bashful woman than to be a man who submits to his wife.
The tone in Kural 907 is clearly misogynistic: Valluvar felt it was degrading to have feminine traits.
Here is another example where Valluvar says it is below their dignity for men to let their wives lead the way:
eNsaerndha nenjath thitanutaiyaarkku eGnGnaandrum
peNsaerndhaam paedhaimai il
Translation: Those who possess high intellect and strong will, will not be so ignorant as to submit to their inexperienced wives’ wishes.
Valluvar also seems to despise prostitutes because they give away pleasure for money. How dare they not turn into the exclusive property of a man and let him govern their sexuality!
Here is an example:
anpin vizhaiyaar poruLvizhaiyum aaidhotiyaar
insol izhukkuth tharum
Translation: The sweet words of a prostitute who desires not a man’s affection but his wealth, will bring him sorrow.
Thus in the Sangam age, going by the androcentric literature, a woman was not equal to man. A woman’s most important virtue was karpu or chastity—the patriarchal principle of sexual exclusivity. Women who did not guard their chastity were seen as dishonourable. A woman’s life was about playing the role of the virtuous mother/wife. Their lives, apart from the men their lives, remain undefined.
The influence of Tholkappiyam and its accompanying misogyny extends beyond the Thirukkural to post-Sangam literature as well. The Silappadhikaaram is an outstanding example. Yep, that’s the next bubble waiting to burst.
In November 2017, Tamil cine actor Athulya Ravi put up a Facebook status apologising to her fans for agreeing to do certain scenes in her (then) upcoming movie, Yemaali. Her apology followed an outrage among her male fans over two scenes in the movie’s trailer: one where she is seen smoking, and one where she is seen taking her shirt off, her back to the camera. The fans were outraged at her audacity to play the unconventional woman, and quite a number of them bullied her on social media.
In a bid to keep peace, and in all probability to stave off negative publicity for the movie, she thanked fans who stood by her, and apologised to those who were “disappointed” by her.
Athulya had won the hearts of the people with her role in Kadhal Kan Kattudhe. She was seen as the clichéd, non-threatening, girl-next-door: she wore salwar kameez, a bindi, gave her boyfriend trouble (as defined in the chauvinistic male’s mind), and ultimately bows down to her man. The trouble with stardom in Tamil Nadu, and probably India is, some of that on-screen image comes to be associated with the star. They are expected to live up to it. Which makes it all the more difficult for female actors to navigate the reel and real worlds: they have an imagined personality, plus the moral codes of the society to live up to.
So when the male fanbase saw her smoking a cigarette, and taking her shirt off, they went berserk. She was shaking up her perfect image of the ideal thamizhachi (Tamil girl/woman). The thamizhachi is coy, naive, plays down her intelligence when she is around her man, cannot defend herself, means “yes” when she says “no” to the hero’s romantic advances. The thamizhachi does not own her sexuality, she silently yearns for the attention of the man who has her heart. In mainstream Tamil cinema, the woman who makes the first move, wear short skirts, bright lipstick, speaks good English, and shows will power is the bad woman, the villi (the Tamilised, female version of “villains”). They are also shown to disrespect boundaries (which the men can get glorified for)—think Neelambari (Padayappa, 1999), or Easwari (Thimiru, 2006).
Should a movie have the female lead wear “modern dresses”, she will ultimately switch to the saree-bindi-jewellery avatar when she falls in love with the male lead. She is never superior to the men in her life.
Athulya is not the first female artiste to be subjected to culture policing by Tamil male fans. Trisha Krishnan, once the darling of the masses, was harassed on social media for taking an anti-Jallikattu stance. She was perceived as taking a stance against Tamil culture. She received hate messages on Twitter, a number of protectors of “Tamil culture” (men of course) right away hurled misogynistic abuses at her, and a number of “jokes” that suggested she was sexually promiscuous were tweeted and retweeted. Her parents were dragged into the mess, called names. However, Tamil actors Vishal and Arya, who also did not take a pro-Jallikattu stand, were not accused of being sexually promiscuous, and did not receive rape threats. This indicates the disturbing pan-Indian belief that a woman’s honour lies in her chastity and sexual exclusivity.
In yet another incident, Dhanya Rajendran, Editor-in-Chief, The News Minute, was trolled on Twitter for tweeting out a criticism of Shah Rukh Khan’s Jab Harry Met Sejal, calling it worse than Sura, a movie Tamil actor Vijay as the lead. Fans of Vijay were so enraged, that they made #PublicityBeepDhanya trend (they tweeted abuses directed at her with the hashtag). She received a tweet shortly before the hashtag started trending, warning her that it would happen. Fans even dug deep into her older tweets, unearthing her earlier criticisms of Vijay and tweeting rape threats at her for them.
That Vijay’s movies can be counted among the most misogynistic mainstream Tamil cinema content, then, comes as no surprise.
These are but few examples of how misogyny has become a part of Tamil society, something that has come to be associated with Tamil men and, specifically, Tamil masculinity. That these incidents have taken place in 2017, is cause for worry. With the increasing number of crimes against women, especially involving men rejected by their objects of romantic interest, makes it important to examine the gender roles defined in Tamil society, how misogyny and sexism have been woven into the idea of “Tamil culture”, and how it has been glorified over a long period of time.
With this series, I hope to add to the body of work that are meant to be used for analysing social structures and practices that enable misogyny.
In India, should you be a woman of 25 or older and unmarried, it offends people to no end. An unmarried woman taking life at her own pace is an irritant in their otherwise peaceful lives. I’d recently been to a friend’s house, we were meeting after a year of only WhatsApp messages. We were talking and her father walked in, and before I could finish saying “Hi, Uncle”, he shot the question at me: “Eppo saapaadu poda pora?” (rough translation: when are you going to invite me to your wedding?). He is not even a wee bit familiar with me as a person, he just knows me as the friend of his daughter (who’s married of course). This man is the quintessential marriage-obsessed Indian. We cannot fully blame him or his lot. It has been drilled into their heads that women are meant to be married off, and that that is what they are meant to aspire to. If you are a woman and married, even if just for a week, people will start asking you about your plans to start a family.
Mona Lisa Smile, set in 1953-54, tackles this unhealthy obsession with subjugating women as merely meant for marriage, borne out of patriarchy, how the system drives it, and what it takes to be an individual who goes against the established norm. And boy do the ethos and social demands of those times reflect the India of 2018.
Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) joins the Wellesly College, Massachusetts, as a teacher of Art History. She looks forward to having an easy time there, only to discover that the women’s college is rather conservative and orthodox in its approach to educating women; they even have “marriage lectures”, as Katherine puts it, where girls are trained to take care of their husbands and be supportive of their spouses’ careers. The girls are equally eager to get married, bake sugar cakes, and have children. Katherine is appalled to no end that young women with so much potential do not aspire to be more than just good wives. She introduces the class to modern art, teaches them to pay attention, observe, think beyond the textbooks, for her classes and more. She faces resistance from the snooty, condescending students and a hostile management.
How Katherine deals with all of it, and whether she succeeds in making the students think big, forms the plot.
Julia Roberts, needless to say, is brilliant. There is this scene where her first day as a teacher does not go well, and she calls her boyfriend for comfort. The moment she hears him ask if she’s okay, she chokes. It is so realistic and relatable, it makes you want to reach out and comfort her.
The actors who play the students, too, are convincing and breathe life into their otherwise one-dimensional roles (Kirsten Dunst, Ginnifer Goodwin, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Julia Stiles). The interactions among the students in class, is so natural and reminiscent of your own college days, they have you smiling. There is also a scene where Giselle (Gyllenhaal) stands in front of a mirror in the college’s dormitory, and after a moment of consideration wonders out loud if she looks like Katherine. That was, again, a very natural, starry-eyed-student thing to do. Props to Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal for the screenplay.
The cinematography (Anastas Miches) warrants appreciation. The set up moves from freeing to suffocating, based on how Katherine feels in each space, effectively taking her side: the room for the marriage lectures and the dormitory seem suffocating, and in both settings, the topic of discussion is marriage, child-rearing, being a good housewife. Katherine’s room at the college, in contrast, is cozy, messy-in-a-nice-way, and true to her non-conformist self. The amount of thought that would have gone into carefully arranging the space to set the mood shows how much the makers care about the art.
On the whole, Mona Lisa Smile is a heartwarming tale of lessons taught and learnt, told in a manner that is not melodramatic or overtly sentimental. Worth a watch. Or two. Or maybe three.
MONA LISA SMILE (2003)
Director: Mike Newell
DoP: Anastas Miches
Cast: Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Ginnifer Goodwin, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Julia Stiles
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Did mental illness facilitate [these creators’] unique abilities, whether it be to play a concerto or to perceive a novel mathematical relationship? Or did mental illness impair their creativity after its initial meteoric burst in their twenties? Or is the relationship more complex than a simple one of cause and effect, in either direction?
Around 15,000 farmers of the All Indian Kisan Sabha (AIKS), who started on the “Long March of the Farmers” to Mumbai from Nashik last week, met a government panel on March 12.
The farmers have agreed to withdraw the protest after the Fadnavis-led government gave assurance in writing that their demands will be fulfilled.
Around 35,000 farmers from Nashik, Maharashtra, set out on March 6 to Mumbai to demand that the government fulfill its promises to them, which are chiefly loan waivers, profitable prices for their produce, and title to forest land. Traversing 180 kms on foot, they reached Mumbai on Sunday. They had intended to gherao the Mantralaya, Maharashtra’s legislative assembly, on Monday, to voice their demands.
What is the Kisan Long March?
Thousands of farmers started their 180-km long march from Nashik to Mumbai last week, to demand that the government fulfill its promises to them. The number soon grew to 35,000 as many more joined them along the way. The march was organised by the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), a farmers’ association affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
What are their demands?
Here are the top demands of the farmers:
An unconditional waiver of their loans and electricity bills.
A Minimum Support Price (MSP) that is 1.5 times the input cost of the produce
Immediate implementation of the recommendations put forward by the M.S. Swaminathan Commission, which are in the interest of farmers
Compensation for loss of crops due to unseasonal rains, pink bollworm infestation, and hailstorms
Implementation of Forest Rights Act, which entitles tribal communities to forest land
Termination of the forceful acquisition of farm lands for developmental projects such as super highways and bullet trains
What do forest lands have to do with an agrarian protest?
Thousands among those who joined the march are tribals and landless farmers who are dependent on forest lands and forest resources for eking out a livelihood. They, however, do not have title to the very land they till or use for economic activities: conflicting implementation of the Forest Rights Act brought control over such lands under the forest department.
The Forest Rights Act seeks to provide land title to such communities and thus secure their livelihood. However, according to a 2017 report by the Community Forest Rights- Learning and Advocacy Group Maharashtra, implementation of the Act is far from perfect. Dr. Geetanjoy Sahu, one of the authors of the report, has stated that this is due to “political challenges”.
Dwindling agricultural income, drought,and unfavourable pricing policies render the livelihood of such landless farmers more onerous. The landless farmers have pinned their hopes on the government transferring to them title to the forest land they cultivate.
What is the Swaminathan Commission? What are its recommendations?
The government of India set up the National Commission on Farmers (NCF), with Professor M.S. Swaminathan as the chairperson. It was constituted to address the growing farmer distress and the rising number of farmer suicides in India. The Swaminathan Commission submitted five reports in total, with the fifth report containing vital recommendations for the inclusive growth of farmers and the agricultural sector. Here is a snapshot of the recommendations made by the Commission:
Distribute ceiling-surplus and waste lands
Prevent the diversion of agricultural and forest land for non-agricultural purposes
Allow grazing rights to tribals and pastoralists and also allow them seasonal access to forests
Provide them access to common property resources
Provide sustained and equitable access to water for all farmers
Increase water supply through rainwater harvesting, mandatory recharge of aquifers
Increase public investment in irrigation, drainage, land development, water conservation, research development, etc. substantially
Set up a national network of advanced soil testing laboratories with facilities for detection of micronutrient deficiencies.
Promote conservation farming, which will enable farmers to conserve soil health, water quality, and biodiversity.
Credit and insurance
Expand the outreach of the formal credit system to reach the really poor farmers
Reduce rate of interest for crop loans to 4 per cent simple, with government support
Announce moratorium on debt recovery, including loans from non-institutional sources, and waive interest on loans in distress hotspots and during calamities, till capability is restored
Establish an Agriculture Risk Fund to provide relief to farmers in the aftermath of successive natural calamities
Issue Kisan Credit Cards to women farmers, with joint pattas as collateral
Develop an integrated credit-cum-crop-livestock-human health insurance package
Expand crop insurance cover to cover the entire country and all crops, with reduced premiums
Create a Rural Insurance Development Fund to spread rural insurance
Implement a universal public distribution system
Reorganise the delivery of nutrition support programmes to include participation of Panchayats and local bodies
Promote the establishment of Community Food and Water Banks operated by Women Self-help Groups (SHG)
Formulate a National Food Guarantee Act continuing the useful features of the Food for Work and Employment Guarantee programmes
You can access the full list of recommendations and observations here.
What has the Maharashtra government assured the farmers of?
Irrigation Minister Girish Mahajan said the government has “agreed on 100% demands”, including transfer of title to land, reported The Hindu. The government has given its assurance in writing that all the farmers’ demands will be fulfilled.
Is this the first farmer protest?
There have been multiple protests and demonstrations by farmers from Maharashtra over the past two years.
A similar protest was organised in March 2016 by the AIKS. Around 40,000 protesters spent two days at the CBS Square in Nashik city, some of them blocking the highway. The government invited a delegation for talks after the March 2016 protest as well.
In October 2016, over 15,000 tribals from Palghar district attempted to surround the home of Tribal Development Minister Vishnu Savara. Hundreds of those tribals from Palghar were part of the march this week.
In June 2017, various farmer leaders came together, though rifts appeared in the end. The current march is conspicuously missing large populations of western Maharashtra farmers, according to The Indian Express.
Farmer protests also took place in Madhya Pradesh in June 2017, demanding loan waivers. Police opened fire on the farmers, killing five. Farmers of Tamil Nadu have also been protesting since 2016, demanding drought relief. This was one of the most gory protests, yet had little effect on the Centre.
Nirmala Hanumappa Hosamane, or Nimmi as she is fondly called, is like every other 5-year-old: curious, affectionate, and a love for playing in the outdoors.
When she noticed that I was talking to her mother, Annapurana, she came running and sat swiftly on the latter’s lap.
I’d been talking to Annapurana about how children in the village have been affected by fluorosis.
“Today is one of her good days,” she says, referring to Nimmi. “The bones in her leg ache so much she finds it difficult to walk. Her knees swell at least once a month”, she says.
Nimmi is a very happy child, she says, except for the days when her legs hurt her.
Huligemma (12), Nimmi’s cousin, gets frequent stomach aches in addition to having painful bones and joints. She loves taking part in sports activities, but her condition impedes her. Her teeth are pitted and have taken on a brown streak.
Vinay Kumar Eerappa Uppar (15) has discoloured teeth and suffers from frequent bouts of dry eyes. He, too, has joint pains in the legs. And, he is, understandably, rather reluctant to smile.
A common sight in the village is children with discoloured teeth. There is also a complaint of pus and pain around the teeth.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the most common cause of fluorosis is the “ingestion of excess fluoride” through drinking water. It “affects teeth and bones”.
Dental fluorosis develops much earlier than skeletal fluorosis. WHO also says that moderate amounts can have dental effects, while long-term ingestion can cause “severe” skeletal problems.
Children of Mustikoppa show signs of chronic exposure to fluoride, through drinking water. They complain of stiff joints, knee pain, back pain, and a few of them, bowed legs—signs of skeletal fluorosis. Some even develop rashes on their skin.
Fluorosis is an endemic disease in India, prevalent in 20 states, according to Fluoride and Fluorosis. In Karnataka, 14 districts have been identified as having endemic fluorosis, Gadag being one of them.
Fluoride is present in high quantities in the soil and rocks in this region, which is dependent on groundwater for drinking. Groundwater in this region is, therefore, subject to geogenic contamination that occurs due to natural causes, specifically due to interaction between water and rock. Consuming this water has led to exposure to fluoride.
According to the groundwater studies conducted by the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), the fluoride content in Mustikoppa’s drinking water ranges from 0.2-3.2 mg/l – very high as per Indian standards, which is 1.0 to 1.5 mg/l. This is not a range—the acceptable limit is 1.0 mg/l, while it is 1.5 mg/l if there is no alternate source of drinking water available.
Mustikoppa does not have a Primary Health Centre (PHC) or even a clinic. To get medical treatment, residents need to visit Kalikeri, a village with the nearest PHC and which is 5 kms away. There is no anganwadi either.
The PHC in Kalikeri, too, is not equipped for child care.
Savitha Beerappa Megeri (24) is a mother of two girls, Yellamma (5) and Ashwini (3). She says both have frequent stomach pain, and develop skin rashes on and off.
“There is no paediatrician who can address the issues. The last time I took them to (the PHC in) Kalikeri, they told me it was due to contaminated water, but not due to fluoride in the water,” she says.
An RO water plant has been installed in the village to enable the villagers to access clean drinking water. They need to pay Re.1 for 10 litres of water. The zilla panchayat has also ensured the installation of a rainwater harvesting system (RWH) in every household. Yet, villagers who live closer to the water pump continue to use it to pump out the contaminated drinking water.
“Water from the pump is sweeter than the RO water”, reasons Rekha Basappa (13). A few of the adults who had gathered chuckled in agreement.
But how about the water harvested through the RWH, I ask.
“We had little rain this time, there wasn’t enough to store”, they say in unison.
Mustikoppa also gets water for domestic purposes from the Tungabhadra every two days, for two hours. The water is not fit for drinking, according to the people of Mustikoppa.
The Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) agrees: it regularly monitors the Tungabhadra river under Global Environment Monitoring System (GEMS) and Monitoring of Indian National Aquatics System (MINARS) programme. According to a KPSCB report, the Tungabhadra water mostly belongs to ‘B’ (outdoor bathing) ‘C’ (drinking water source with conventional treatment followed by disinfection) at different locations and during different months.
The Panchayat Adyaksh, Hanumanthappahalli, was not available for comment.
H B Gadigaravama, an official of the Department of Rural Development and Panchayat Raj, said that Mundargi Taluk has recorded the highest levels of fluorosis in Gadag district.
“We test the water regularly and continuously (sic)”, he said. “We also visit the villages frequently”. He also said that they were adhering to the guidelines and practices prescribed by the National Programme for Prevention and Control of Fluorosis (NPPCF).
Dr. R R Hosamani, District Fluorosis Consultant, said that they were holding awareness programmes in schools in the district regularly, and that currently, they were testing borewell water in Gadag.
While there is no cure for fluorosis according to CGWB, the PHC in Kalikeri hands out medication in the form of tablets to the people of Mustikoppa.
“The tablets keep the pain at bay for maybe two days. After that, we are back to dealing with the tears and aches”, says Savitha, gently carassing Yellamma’s head.
This report is also available as a visual story here.
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Walking on to the Marina Loop Road equipped with a knowledge of its past was a surreal experience. The strip of land on which the Road currently runs, flanked by the Marina Beach on the east and Nochikuppam on the west, was part of what was initially granted to the British East India Company to construct a factory and warehouse. Renowned historian of Chennai S Muthiah notes in his book Tales of Old and New Madras that a fishing village, Madrasapatnam, was part of the land granted. There is enough historical evidence that fishing settlements were here before the tiny strip of land grew into Madras, and much before modern day Chennai. Yet, the residents haven’t been provided proper title deeds to their land to date.
The Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notification, 1991, led way to acceptance of the land rights of the fishing community. However, the lack of clarity in the definition of the people entitled to the rights, have made it easy to deny them the entitlement to live where they always have.
Additionally, their settlements were classified as “slums” under the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Act, 1971. The Act bestowed control over their lands to the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board (TNSCB), which has led to the fishing community being “resettled” in a haphazard manner, the most common practice being relocating the people quite far away from where they went fishing.
As a result, “kuppam”, which meant a fishing hamlet, has come to be synonymous with “slum” and the accompanying unfavourable assumptions and imagery: anti-social activities, unsafe in general, and dishonest people.
Nochikuppam, officially Nochi Nagar, is one of the many kuppams that have been dealt such a fate. For ease of reporting, this write-up uses “slum” to refer to Nochi Kuppam/Nochi Nagar, as it has been registered as one.
The oldest residents of this slum have been living here for approximately 60 years, and do not recall much of what it was like before they were shifted to the tenements built by TNSCB except that they were living on the beach in tents.
Makeshift fish stalls manned by women on the east side of Loop Road mark the entrance of the slum area. Nochi Nagar can be categorised into two areas based on the amenities available and living conditions: the Emergency Tsunami Rehabilitation Programme (ETRP) buildings plus the buildings that came after, and the tenements built in the 1970s, both constructed by the Tamil Nadu government.
The making of Nochi Nagar
The fishing hamlet that consisted of shacks and tents on the shore were shifted to tenements made of brick and iron in 1973. They are now in a dilapidated condition, yet most of them continue to be occupied.
These tenements are all 5X10 feet. The floor is of cement, walls made of bricks, and the roof of tin and iron. Each tenement is a single room, divided into a space for the kitchen, space for bathing, and a living room, with little physical demarcation to separate each area. Everyone in the house bathes inside the house, at the left corner where the floor has been made hollow, and has an outlet for the water to drain. The public toilets, situated a few metres away, are the only ones available for all the residents.
“It is mortifying, but we don’t have a choice”, says Velankanni M (30), who lives in one of these houses. She works as a housekeeper at Sun City. Her husband works as a mason. They have two sons, both of whom are in primary school.
Velankanni says the residents live in constant uncertainty.
“In 2004, the tsunami damaged the entire settlement. We were promised a flat each in those buildings (she points to the ETRP apartments), but not all of us have been given one. We put our hard-earned money to make these houses liveable”, she says.
But it didn’t stop with the tsunami.
“The 2015 floods were horrifying. Our roof leaked and we couldn’t do anything about it. The 2016 cyclone (Vardah) too, took away our roof. The last two years were filled with turmoil. I was constantly fearing for our safety”, she says.
Velankanni says that the one positive aspect of living here is the free electricity.
“As we don’t have to pay for the electricity, people who have been assigned flats lease them out and come back here to live”, she smiles wryly.
The electricity, even though free, is rather irregular. Unannounced power cuts are common, and they last for hours.
“At least four hours”, Velankanni says.
The premises of the green coloured buildings were built between 2009 to 2014, out of the Tamil Nadu government’s own funds. The space between one block of flats and another is narrow, with parking space for vehicles; the compound wall is short (3 feet, approximately) and lacks any gates to secure the complex. The premises also have a few of the original houses built by some of the residents, and they remain as the owners refused to give them up for demolition. These families have not been allotted flats.
Manjula M (43), has been living here for 30 years now (she admits that she does not remember the exact number of years). The men go fishing, while the women sell the catch. On a good day, she says, the fishermen make up to Rs. 500.
She says the buildings painted green are occupied only by the fisher folk.
“A few of the families set up shacks here (she points to the vacant space between the compound walls and the buildings), but they were later made to vacate by the authorities”, she says. Who were these people, I ask.
“Oh, they do other things. They don’t fish. They don’t belong here”, she says gruffly.
“They knit fishing nets, work as housekeepers, and so on,” interjects Thamizharasi J (50), who had stopped by to listen in. Almost immediately Manjula hushes her, saying something under her breath, and they part ways.
In the block where Manjula lives, each floor has two flats. Each block consisting of four floors.
The flat is quite tiny, hardly 300 sq. ft. Manjula lives with her two children and her husband.
“We were handed a bare flat, with cement floor and no paint on the walls. We added the tiles and painted the walls using our own money”, she says.
These flats have their own washroom, however, it is tiny.
“The major issue here is water supply. We recently put together funds from our personal savings and set up borewells”, she says.
How about electricity, I ask.
“It’s irregular. We have power cuts that last for at least an hour a day”, she says.
Where the non-fishers retire
The buildings painted pink are the resettlement flats built under the ETRP, funded by the World Bank. According to a CAG audit report, the Programme allowed for building flats in Okkiam Thoraipakkam, All India Radio (AIR) site, and Nochikuppam. Nochikuppam is the only in situ reconstruction. However, after some of the flats were allegedly allocated to those who were not residents of the slum (they came from other tsunami-affected hamlets) and those who did not belong to the fishing community, there was a standoff between the Nochikuppam residents and TNSCB. This deadlock led to the World Bank withdrawing funds.
The Tamil Nadu government then decided to fund the projects, and as a result, only 628 flats have been built in total, as against the originally proposed 7320 tenements using the World Bank funds.
Another issue that the residents had with the allotment of flats was that the TNSCB did not account for the children of the original families, who are adults now and have families of their own: they have all been counted as a single family unit and allotted a single flat.
“How can so many of us live in such a small space?”, asks Thilakavathi S, who lives in one of the ETRP flats. A portrait of B R Ambedkar hangs in the living room.
These buildings are a lot more cramped: each block has four floors, and each floor has at least 42 flats on either side. The passages are ill-lit and more narrow than the stairs leading to the houses.
Thilakavathi says that they hardly have continuous electricity or water supply.
“During summer, we have water supply once every four days. In the winter, it is once every two days”, she says.
Very few people in the ETRP buildings go fishing. What do they do for a living, I ask.
“We are mostly daily wage labourers. Housekeeping and building construction work is what we take up”, she says.
Why aren’t they allowed to go fishing?
One woman, on condition of anonymity, said, “We belong to a lower caste. We can’t fish”.
No public schools and hospitals
Despite the varying levels of discrimination among the residents, they have a common issue: they have to spend on private education for their children and private health care for their families.
The nearest emergency medical facility is at Luz Corner. The choice of schools is St. Thomas and Santhome High School.
“We want our children to get good education. We can’t depend on corporation schools for that. Those of us who can afford to, send the children to private schools”, says Manjula.
A beacon of hope
Swapna Sundari (55) was talking to a group of women under a makeshift shack constructed right next to the ship-shaped public toilet.
Taking time off the meeting to talk to this writer, she explained that she was helping the women with their loan applications so they can set up their own businesses.
She maintains a register with their names, and how much they need to repay each month.
“One of them wants to sell flowers, and another wants to set up a shop to sell dosa batter. This lets them have financial independence”, she explains.
Swapna has also taught the residents how to open a bank account, how to deposit and withdraw money.
She has been working with various NGOs including Action Aid, to help the residents of the slum lead better lives.
She has worked with the police department to prevent caste clashes in the slum and organised the youth to collect funds for setting up lights in the area.
“The lights have made a huge difference. It makes the area feel safe, and discourages men from misbehaving with women”, she says.
Another problem that used to constantly flare-up was the clash between original residents of Nochikuppam and those who have been resettled here from other fishing hamlets post-tsunami.
“This has reduced, the youth are more compassionate now”, she states.
Alcoholism is another major issue, she says. Despite staging street plays and conducting workshops, the men slip into drinking after a few days of staying away from it.
“They work hard at sea, and liquor has become their only source of comfort. I am still working with NGOs to change this”, Swapna says wistfully.
The need for government support
Swapna says that the government needs to work with the people’s welfare as priority and provide more in situ constructions than displacing an entire slum.
“These people typically live close to their source of livelihood. How is it fair to place them so far away?” she asks.
Slum resettlement is about improving the quality of live of the people living in them, and the government needs to put their needs first, and stick to the spirit of the motto, reminiscent of an MGR song: “God we shall see in the smile of the poor”.