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What a meeting with Anthony Bourdain taught an Indian food writer in Sri Lanka

Bourdain was a self-admitted ‘freak living outside the margins of society’ who gave forgotten places and foods the gift of being seen.

Last year, on a moody, overcast May afternoon, I waited with anticipation to meet and interview Anthony Bourdain. A few weeks before, Tom Vitale and Jeff Allen, the director and producer of the Emmy Award-winning CNN show, Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, had reached out to me about an episode they were planning to film in Sri Lanka. For nearly a month, we had brainstormed about the socio-political climate in Sri Lanka, hole-in-the-wall restaurants of the sort that Bourdain favoured, and the best haunts for Jaffna crab curry.

As a food and travel writer who had moved to Sri Lanka only three years before, the opportunity to contribute to Parts Unknown felt like a career-defining moment. I had always been acutely aware of the weighty responsibility implicit in writing about a country that I was only just getting to know – which only sharpened my desire to make the most of my short interaction with Tony, as the crew called him. After all, he had crafted a wildly successful global career in television doing the same thing.

Until Bourdain swept onto our screens in the early 2000s as the lanky host of No Reservations, with his trademark tattoos, deep baritone and wry humour, often broken by a cheeky grin, travel shows felt like carefully curated picture postcards. Apart from a few shows, such as TLC’s Globe Trekker hosted by the goofy and affable Ian Wright, travel shows seemed impossibly remote, scrupulously scrubbed clean of the gritty reality – and the true cost – of experiencing the world.

Bourdain challenged this voyeuristic style of travel journalism – although he took pains to clarify that he was not a journalist, preferring instead to be called an “enthusiast”. On his frequent travels to places such as Haiti, Lebanon, Senegal and Iran, which would not feature on the average travel brochure, he subtly recalibrated expectations of what travel could mean, of the heft that those collective experiences could carry. His voracious appetite and abiding interest in seeking out authentic food experiences – whether it was in a nondescript noodle shop or a family home – emboldened a generation of travellers to chart offbeat itineraries, and to try foods that would otherwise remain separated by an intractable cultural divide.

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In preparation for that evening, I wondered what I could possibly ask Tony that he hadn’t been asked before. One of the most interviewed celebrities of our age, he had been quizzed about everything, from his views on American politics (“Our president is a ****ing joke,” he said, in all seriousness, after my tape had stopped rolling) to the craziest things he had eaten (a question he had grown tired of answering, I was told).

In early 2017, he had been profiled poignantly in the New Yorker, a story so thoroughly researched and engaging told that I wished I could have written it. I was curious about how much his onscreen persona matched his real-life one. I also wanted to understand whether the meaning of travel had changed for him – both personally and professionally – after nearly two decades on the road.

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Settling down with a large gin and tonic, Tony committed completely to the interview. Where I had assumed that he perhaps had a well-stocked arsenal of answers, he listened carefully to each question, fixing me with his intent gaze as he worked out his response. I asked him whether, in a shrinking world where travel is easier than it has been in any other era, there really were that many parts that remained unknown. “I think what’s unknown these days...[is] almost increased,” he said. “We’re living in a world...where there is a rising tide of nationalism and inward-looking mentality. The world is very big, and we will never run out of places. I think we can go back just to Los Angeles again and again and again, and show aspects of Los Angeles that most Americans have never seen. I don’t feel at peril of running out of places or aspects of culture that are relatively unknown or haven’t been explored.”

Unfathomable to those of us for whom travel is a means to reboot our routine lives – and not upend it completely – Tony spent most part of the year travelling on a punishing shooting schedule. Although his life as we saw it seemed like an idyll to aspire for, I asked him whether he missed being rooted to one place. “I had 30 years standing on my feet in a rooted place,” he said, referring to the time he spent in restaurant kitchens in the United States. “I wasn’t good at that. I don’t miss that. It’s like that line from Apocalypse Now: ‘When I’m there, I want to be here. When I’m here, I don’t want to be there.’”

Yet, he paused to tell me about the off-camera aspects of his unconventional life choice, words that seem almost prescient now. “It’s a strange life. It’s both liberating, exciting, humbling and alienating. I spend 250 days of the year waking up in hotel rooms around the world. It is a privileged place to be for sure – I believe that I have the best job in the world. On the other hand, it’s not normal. I’m a freak. I live outside the margins of society, of normal life or relationships or any hope of having any of those things.”

With each episode of Parts Unknown, Tony and his team created what he once described in a television interview as “a series of standalone essays that generally try to focus on the subject of food and where it comes from, but not always”. Until I had the opportunity to feel, albeit from a distance, the adrenaline and creative energy that went into the crafting of an episode, I had always been content with the possibilities of the written word. Yet, after my brief interaction with Tony and his talented team, I felt buoyed by his irrepressible enthusiasm for television. Even as I harboured dreams of working on the show some day, I began to understand why he was so often besieged by clamouring fans, and why his Instagram account was overrun with people begging him to visit their hometowns.

He visited the places that television had forgotten, ate the food that few had heard of, and lent them the gift of being seen and heard. As for me, he inspired me to keep telling stories about the country I now call home – to explore boldly but keep my footprint light.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.