[From my column OBVIOUSLY OPAQUE in VOICE, 1-15 September 2011]
It was pitch dark inside. The film was darker. What else could it be with all the shades of black it had despite being named, ironically, Gulal or saffron? Quite apparently the maverick director has delivered one more masterpiece ensuring, in the process, that Bollywood has come of age. It was now grappling with, as the critics would declare, issues far more serious than the existential crises of the erstwhile heroes triggered by the compulsions of making tea for the first time in their lives. You remember Wake Up Sid, don’t you?
Precisely for this reason, Gulal was a welcome change, or so it seemed to me spellbound by the magic it has woven with so much conviction. It has brought back student politics in the mainstream discourse. That too in the era when middle class gets repulsed by the mere mention of the term student politics, like all other politics! On top of that, the locale it chose was far away from the metros. It was an area where roads were ruled by macho jeeps and not by soft and suave sedans. An area where Royal Enfield Bullets were the passport one needed to enter the positions of power!
Life, as portrayed by Gulal, was a life of gray shades. Nothing here came in easily discernible and likable colours of black and white. All characters of the movie, even the protagonists, had evil designs of their own. They had an ideology as well! Oh lord, that dreaded word again? Here were people making sacrifices for it, that too when it was pronounced to be dead decades ago! Where are you dear Fukoyama?
Something struck me then. This ideology was not the same as I have known it to be. It came from the world it depicted, reconstructed and longed for. The world of Gulal was a world of Bannas or big brothers lording over an area and fighting among themselves for the quest of Rajputana, that ancestral property which was ‘usurped’ by the nefarious machinations of post independence democratic India.
Sheer audacity of the thought stunned me! Someone could really accuse a democratic India of conspiring against the world of Bannas? The reality was other way round, wasn’t it? Then came the realization that the banality did not stop there. The big brothers were upto something else as well, something far more serious. Ideology, for them, was a conduit to reclaim that longed for world back from the realities of our times.
They wanted to build a world that suited their whims and fancies. A world where none but their caste existed. This was not for nothing that the film having a number of characters was so majorly dominated by the presence of just one community, that of Rajputs! I tried recalling how many of the characters belonged to other communities and could not count more than four. Needleless to say that all of them were peripheral to the story!
Seeing Gulal in this light was sickening me. I wanted it to be just an exception, a discordant note from the annals of contemporary Hindi Cinema. It was not. Gulal has followed Omkara, another ‘masterpiece’ from another infant terrible of cinema of our times. Barring the fact that the protagonists of that movie were Brahmins and not Rajputs, everything else was strikingly similar to this one. Everything in fact meant everything. The quest for power, the disgust for democracy, the machinations one names it and there it was! Worse even, the biggest existential crisis of the ‘hero’ was his social status. He was just a ‘half-brahmin’ in the lands privileging purity of birth over anything else. The film did not have many characters from other castes/communities was beside the point.
Omkara, sadly, was not an exception either. All it has achieved was going one step closer in expunging all those did not want to be part of their world. It was a move up from the world of Praksh Jhas where villains were all from lower castes/communities while the ‘hero’ taking on them came, always, from the higher echelons of the society. Remember Gangajal and Shool! Not that they did not have negative characters from the upper castes. They certainly did as in Apaharan. But even the negative ones have a chance at redemption, an option closed to the more unfortunate ones, marked to be of lowly status forever because of the accident of their births. Some shift it was from the times when the ‘heroes’ used to be poor and thus supposedly from the lower castes/communities.
The change was not accidental though. It was in the making for a while. Neither was it confined to cinema. This subversion of reality was infesting almost all aspects of popular culture slowly. One of the best English news magazines was doing cover stories on the return of the Brahmin, I wonder if they have ever gone anywhere to return! There was Naipaul as well, the definitive Indian writer for the west despite not being born in India as well as abhorring almost everything Indian. The books written by him were so full of the lament of the decline of our country, attributing it to the injustices done to the Brahmins in post-independent India for good measures
I have encountered this first many summers ago, in those lazy afternoons spent in my grandma’s village reading popular Hindi literary novels. Rag Darbari, one of the most famous Hindi novels, comes readily to the mind. I remember I was so beguiled by it. Set in a mofussil town, it told the story of power play as it unfolds in the countryside. It represented the world, my world, so accurately. What I did not notice then was the fact that this world too was sanitized. I tried recalling the characters of the novel and finding out how many of them belonged to the lower strata. I failed again. Barring just one character, named Shanichara , no one came to the mind. Moreover, the very name of this character Shanichara was a telling comment on his status, Shani being the malovalent god in the Hindu cosmology, more a harbinger of bad luck and miseries!
A mofussil town, of all places, cannot be empty of the people from the weaker sections. Despite all the distress migration, despite all the displacements, a huge number of them remain confined to the boundaries of their villages. So where did they disappear from the Rajputana of Gulal and from the village of Omkara ? Had they all left the Shivpalganj of Rag Darbari en maase? For where, if they actually did? Why did we not notice them leaving?
We did not, because they did never leave. They did not actually have anywhere to go. They were just being erased from the cultural history. Their presence was an eyesore for those hell bent on making India Shining! Their India as a superpower by 2020 dreams had no space for these people, seen more as liabilities than being real people, of the same blood and flesh as are we.
The popular culture was not really ‘popular’ anymore. It did not represent the dreams, desires and even disgust of the silent majority, a majority in numerical terms but devoid of any stakes in power! These people were superfluous, an appendage to the Indian citizenry. The unspoken truth for powers that be is that India could do far better without these people!
Are these people really so inconsequential? Not really. Quite on the contrary, the shining India needs them to wash their clothes, to cook their food, to drive their cars. In short, they are required for ensuring the very basic survival of the great Indian middle class. The problem is that they need them while also wanting them to be invisible. They feel uncomfortable with everything these wretched ones. Their complexion stains the shine of India. Their dialects sound so much depressing in the face of impeccable English of their masters. For the favoured children of destiny, most of these dirty creatures even stink!
How to deal with the issue then? By making them invisible, the ‘popular’ is showing the way forward. The project actually goes well with the other favourite pastime of the elites. The project of denigrating democracy, I mean. They want it to be replaced by benevolent dictatorships who could ensure ‘varnashram’ in their villages. Is not that the best system to keep those lesser mortals ‘in their place’? It would be even better if the dictatorship has some ‘divine’ tinge to it. The mighty ones knows that failing to do so would mean a disaster in the form of all the unpleasant faces crowding the parliament and assemblies and forcing the acts like ‘reservation’ down their unwilling throats!
Use them but don’t see them seems to be the new Mantra for the New India!