Thursday, July 7, 2011

Do Indian androids dream of Bollywood sheep?

India’s first-ever cocktail of Bollywood and science fiction has just won three awards in India's version of the Oscars. Robot (Endhiran) has clearly whetted Indian movie buffs' appetite, and this October will see the release of a Bollywood sci-fi superhero film called Ra.One that reworks the story of the mythological Indian demon god Ravana. Sci-fi and Bollywood are surprisingly comfortable bedfellows - after all, both genres tend to be fantastical and larger than life, and both have outlandish costumes.

Both genres are also budget-guzzlers, and
Robot is Indian cinema’s most expensive creation ever, costing about US$37 million to make. The film tells the story of Dr Vasi (Rajnikanth), a robotics scientist who creates an android called Chitti that looks just like him. Vasi is in love with Sana (Aishwarya Rai), who becomes fond of Chitti. And Chitti’s loyalty is bound to Vasi by an electronic umbilical cord. For a while, the film is a rosy montage of Chitti’s benign mix of supermom (cooking and cleaning to perfection) and superman (saving people from burning buildings). But when Chitti is tweaked to become more human, he exercises his "hormone simulation upgrade" by lusting after Sana, kicking off a jealous feud between Chitti and Vasi.

Bollywood films try to appeal to 8-yr-olds and 80-yr-olds equally. This means that in its depiction of science,
Robot resorts to highly clich├ęd conventions – scientists who are either cold and clinical or downright evil and Machiavellian. The set and costume design too tick every box in the ‘futuristic movie look’ (think shiny metallic outfits).

Robot references every sci-fi/fantasy film you can think of – The Matrix, Terminator, Predator, and Bicentennial man - and throws in tropes of vampirism and cloning for good measure. All of this is spray-painted with song-and-dance sequences that are magnificently glittery even by Bollywood standards (in one gloriously bizarre sequence, the film jump-cuts from an Indian beach to the hero and heroine serenading each other in feathered costumes atop Machhu Picchu in Peru).

The whole screenplay is so tongue-in-cheek that it is hard to know whether the filmmakers wanted to send any serious message about science or technology amidst the feather boas and spandex. It is probably best not to search too deeply for scientific significance in
Robot, but if the film comments on anything, it is the threat of the ego in science. Like Dr Frankenstein’s monster, Chitti the robot is driven to turning evil and threatens to destroy its egotistical maker.

As an emerging economy, India’s scientific spending and output rises every year. Some argue that spending millions on high-profile space programmes, or on advanced science such as nanotechnology or GM agriculture, is unethical when much of the population doesn’t benefit from the country’s scientific or medical advances. Perhaps the film is hinting that India’s insistence on pushing itself as a credible global scientific presence while ignoring the suffering of millions of its people could backfire if unchecked? If nothing else, watch this Bolly/Sci-fi romp for its surreal flights of fantasy. It may clock a bum-numbing 3-hours of screen time, but it’s never boring.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Isn't sex the same in Nairobi or New York?

Sex thrusts itself into every aspect of modern life so blatantly - advertisers use it to sell us everything from cars to coffee and no Hollywood film is complete without a little light nudity - that it's easy to forget that in real life, many of us are nowhere near progressive in our sexual behaviour.

Around the planet, people have sex when they'd rather not, pretend that STDs happen to other people, and don't use condoms when they know they should.

Health experts are going to be thinking about sex and condoms a lot over the next few weeks. July 11th is World Population Day, and while fertility rates are plummeting in developed countries, populations are set to spiral in Africa and Asia. At the International AIDS Society conference in Rome this month, HIV experts are going to be talking about how to improve HIV prevention efforts. Slowing population growth and stopping HIV both rely on people using condoms more often (let's face it, abstinence is never really going to work), and figuring out how to do this is perplexing policymakers and researchers.

Many scientists study these issues in countries in Asia and Africa to figure out how to solve the conundrum, but too often the studies are predicated on the notion that people in poor countries behave or think differently in sexual relationships than they do in the West. This seems to be a major stumbling block in improving sexual and reproductive health in these countries.

Sexual and reproductive health programmes aimed at the developing world are always mindful of local cultural and social traditions – the idea being that if we import programmes designed with Western sexual attitudes in mind, they would hold little traction in conservative societies where men still tend to dominate.

Clearly, social mores affect sexual attitudes, and it would be ludicrous to take a one-size-fits-all approach to sexual health programmes irrespective of local religious beliefs or cultural approaches to sex before marriage, say. Yet cultural norms often operate at a macro, societal level; on an individual level, however, sexual relationships tend to operate similarly wherever you are in the world. Negotiating something as fundamental and intimate as sex is as delicate and complicated in Nairobi as it might be in New York.

A quick scan of research articles on increasing condom use in developing nations shows that almost all talk about how to empower women to better negotiate it. This not only puts the onus on women to take care of the sexual health of both herself and her partner, it assumes that men are not capable of taking any responsibility, and even suggests to them that they shouldn’t try to. It also ignores an obvious point: if empowering women is the answer, why doesn’t it work in the West, where many women are about as empowered as they can be?

One paper encourages women in developing countries to negotiate condom use well before they have sex. Could you really imagine even the most educated, independent, feminist woman in a city like London leaning over to their potential sexual partner over dinner, in between the main course and dessert, say, and telling them that they better stock up on condoms?

Women should always be encouraged to stand up for their sexual rights, and empowering women is a commendable goal. But if privileged women in rich countries find negotiating the balance of power in sexual relationships difficult, it seems a double standard to expect it of women in the developing world. Experts working to improve sexual health in developing countries should instead focus on bringing men into the picture. Sexual health isn’t just a woman’s problem, and it’s time we stopped pretending that men don’t also have a role to play.

Image: Condom superhero costumes at Cabbages and Condoms, Bangkok, an NGO that promotes safe sex

Photo credit: Shane R/flickr