[First published in my column OBVIOUSLY OPAQUE in UTS' Voice Aug16-31, 2011]
We had forgotten them long back. They had to be forgotten for they belonged to an era bygone. Not that this act of forgetting happened overnight. They were exiled from our cultural memories with a method befitting a cold-blooded assassin, of a cultural type though! They were first driven out of the metros and other big urban centers and were condemned to those shady structures called ‘touring talkies’ (and pronounced ‘toorin’) dotting the landscape of mofussil India, running either the soft-porn movies of the south dubbed in Hindi or them, the Masala, or formula films, once the ruling deities of Bollywood scripts.
Then, they were denied the patronage of ruling deities of Bollywood itself! No star worth his salt would sign if presented with one of these scripts! The best they could now manage was someone past his prime, consigned to the margins of Bollywood itself. Mithun Chakravarty, once the Amitabh Bachchan of poor producers, came to represent the genre singlehandedly. He kept the tough, rustic but gold- hearted bully fighting for the masses alive, albeit in the places faraway from ‘mainstream’ India.
Bollywood was coming of age, producing movies reflective of our times, the times of urban, elite, English speaking middle classes to be honest. Despite forming just a tiny, almost insignificant, part of Indian population, they came to dominate the silver screen like never before. The scripts of new movies now revolved around their lives, their concerns, their longings and belongings. Most of the times even the locale shifted from the rusty and chaotic spaces characterizing India to the manicured lanes of Manhattan. The hero did not first meet the heroine in a local train anymore; they bumped into each other on Euro rail! The class concerns of the bygone era evaporated into thin air too. Now, no one was poor, one did not even need to. All of them were rich and successful with a very different kind of existential crises.
However much one quoted ‘it’s all about economy stupid!’, the basic concerns of this ‘coming of age cinema’ were returning to the benevolent private space of community, religion and family! Now all a London-based, successful Indian businessman, in a cult-classic Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, wanted for his daughter was a ‘desi’ husband to keep her rooted to ‘our’ culture! Now, a just returned NRI girl was astonishing everyone by singing a popular Hindi Bhajan in Kuchh Kuchh Hota hai!
Some of these movies did go beyond exploring the obvious. For example, perennial thorns in the Indian social life like caste and religion ceased to be of much consequence even when it came to depict love and marriages. Both the opening and closing frames of another superhit Kal Ho Na Ho are a glaring example of this. The film opens with “Main Hun Naina Katherine Kapoor’ aur ye hai meri kahani, ( I am Naina Katherine Kapoor and this is my story) and closes with Main Hun Naina Katherine Kapoor Patel aur ye thi meri kahani (I am Naina Katherine Kapoor Patel and this was my story)! The words sting even the most untrained ears by their sheer defiance of not only caste but even religious and regional codes of social relations.
But then, the exploration stopped there. There was, like almost all other films of the times, no mention of the issues which still dominate and define the lives of ordinary, not so well-to-do Indians living in mofussil and rural India. Actually, the protagonists of such movies could easily send such divisive, pre-modern, and feudal patterns to the oblivion. They had gotten money, and the power emanating from this money, on their side. Further, they were not miles, but oceans away and thus safe from the prying hands of moral police out on prowl to enforce these codes of social/cultural honour. Their movies reflected the same cocooned, and sanitized worlds safely harboured on both side of the pacific.
This made me remember the rustic. That old chap who used to take on the big bad villains mostly on the issues concerning all the downtrodden masses. He, a poor chap, would fall in love with a super-rich girl and would then take on the barriers and in the process the economic divide. He would be a farmer and would take on the local feudal breaking his citadel and in the process the bondages and slavery. He would be a labourer, a coolie, and would take on the system that cheats on the meager wages they get. He would be mill worker and would take on the nexus between the capitalist owners and the corrupt politicians/bureaucrats. He was the angry young man of the 70s, always out on the streets, taking on the armies of hoodlums all alone.
In short, he would represent the pains and pleasures, the agonies and the joys, the compulsions and concerns, or life itself of the people, real people. The people who sat faceless behind the windows we bought train tickets from. They were the nameless people whom we did not even notice while buying that chilled water bottle from them. They were the amorphous people who drove the cabs we hired from airport to hotels and back. They were the people exiled from mainstream cinema waiting for their messiah to return.
Of course this messiah was not flawless. Despite having been used as a trope, as a cinematic device, he reflected both the strengths and weaknesses of real people. He did live in an idealized but not ideal world. His world was as male dominated, violent, conflict ridden and unequal as the society his world was a part of. But this is what made him more endearing, more real and easier to relate with. This is what made him a HERO!
He was missing for long enough to make me pick up a fight with that great novelist from the Orients Orhan Pamuk! Did he really believe that ‘a face long not seen, however loved, fades from the memory’? I did not forget the rustic hero! I missed him and I knew that I was not only one. He did never fade from our memories. We kept looking for him and not finding him in the outside world kept coming back to our homes to relive his memories on the small screens of our laptops. He remained a part of our psyche and we were not ashamed of this.
Not that we didn’t enjoy the new flicks churning out of the newly rechristened ‘factories’. We did. We watched them, discussed them, agreed with them and at times tore them apart. Our hearts beat for an occasional Rang De Basanti or Yuva rekindling our memories of the rustic. But we knew that they were not the same. We acknowledged this in public even at the cost of seeming not to be at pace with the times, and the love remained intact.
Then, THE RUSTIC returned. Interestingly, he returned in the persona of the very same chap who was instrumental in exiling them! Salaman Khan of Maine Pyar Kiya had pulled the curtains on the genre by heralding the Hindi Cinema of the late 1980s into the make-believe world of hopes and hoopla. And here he was on the kill again! But the ‘chocolati hero’ of the times has transformed into something very different! ‘Wanted’ had him as a direct import from the 70s, albeit in a far more muscular form administering instant justice on the rowdies both in and out of the uniform. He was an undercover cop, again something transplanted from 70s to our times.
We looked in disbelief if it was for real or a one off thing. And there came Dabangg and with Dabangg returned the mofussil to the center stage of silver screen. This return was spectacular, making Dabangg one of the biggest all time hits of Hindi cinema in no time, and in the process announcing that the rustic has come back to stay! It was an acknowledgment of the real India that existed beyond the sugary depictions of the industry.
Nonetheless, there was something amiss. No one was looking at the harsh realities Dabangg had brought with it. Did it not make the fact that nothing has changed in mofussil India for more than last four decades? If one does not take cellphones to be the definitive markers of progress, that is! Was not Dabangg’s rustic hero lovable despite being unabashedly corrupt unlike those smugglers of the 70s who did betray their ethical discomforts as in Deewar? Was it a sign of our times, in which corruption has not only become part of life but an acceptable part of that?
Dabangg was a problematic return for many more things. The Kasbah it brought back had no Dalits/OBCs or even poor people! But then, not one such Kasbah can exist in India so where has these people disappeared in this movie? Had they gone invisible or worse even, they just did not matter! And the women, they fared worse. When was the last time one had seen the rustic forcing his ladylove to stand in the middle of a thana and listen to all the obscene jokes. When was the last time a heroine was forced to tell the hero that she was not scared of being slapped but of being loved! The earlier rustic was patriarchal too, but he was at least a benevolent one!
Apparently, the change had come to the mofussil. Sadly, this time it was the change for the worse. I hope this does not become the trend. That the return does not remain confined to a partial return of a fractured, sanitized reality! The return should be complete even if it emerges as a story of glaring failures, even if it indicts all our claims of being on a highway to success. For the fact that, accepting the reality is first step in the process of changing things for the better. I am happy that the rustic of Singham has gone one step further from that of Dabangg. That‘s hope for me.