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The politics of packaging



July 1, 2010 05:23:35 PM IST
Shoma A. Chatterji, TWF, Bollywood Trade News Network
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The essential potboiler quality of mainstream Hindi films with orchestrated item numbers and a melodramatic climax defeats the essence of the political statements in them. Recent examples are RAAJNEETI and Mani Ratnam's RAAVAN.

After a scathing political statement on the corruption in electoral politics that makes no bones about sacrificing a poor untouchable in a Bihar village in Damul, Prakash Jha made powerful political statements through MRITYUDAND, GANGAJAL and APAHARAN. GANGAJAL took up the blinding of prisoners in Bihar by the police while APAHARAN essayed how an honest young man is sucked into the Bihar mafia for want of a proper job. In these films Jha added sizzling and no-holds-barred item numbers as box office bonus. His RAAJNEETI takes off largely from the Mahabharata and gives the audience a beautifully packaged political product at its sophisticated and post-modernist best by bringing the conflict between two families to zero down on the political maneuverings and capabilities of two blood brothers and one wronged illegitimate brother.

The essential potboiler quality of mainstream Hindi films with orchestrated item numbers and a melodramatic climax defeats the essence of the political statements in them. Mani Ratnam's DIL SE and YUVA would be categorized similarly along with RAAVAN, all of which are mainstream films with subtle political and social statements woven into the narrative. But they are targeted at the box office and the political message is a clever strategy to give them the edge of carrying overt or covert political messages as a value-addition.

Is there any cinema that is 'apolitical' that does not have any political statement to make? Isn't there a politics within the entertainment thrown up by Indian mainstream films? If politics propagates a point of view, or has an agenda, then every film is political because it expresses the aesthetics of a creative artist. It also presents the artist's bias for or against something. Argentine filmmaker Jeanine Meerapfel says, "Every film is a political film because it presents the maker's point of view." In relatively lesser dynamic and immediate forms of art like painting, music and dance, the political substance may remain low-key and less exploited because they lack the life and mass appeal that cinema has.

Did the Paki-bashing films of the 1990s have a genuinely political agenda? Not really. GADAR almost spat out a turban-clad Sunny Deol. With his rippling muscles under a bloodstained kurta, he runs atop a speeding train to shoot down one helicopter after another with his single AK-47 as the Pakistani train rushes towards the Indian border. GADAR was certainly not the right way to ensure peace and harmony between the two countries. But with the ticket counters jingling away merrily, much to the thrill of the producer, director, distributors and exhibitors, who cared about harmony between India and Pakistan?

The thumping box office success of GADAR brought in its wake, a jingoistic variety of colourful anti-Pakistani films over the past decade. GADAR could have drawn from cinema's potential to tackle a fragile issue like the searing experience of the Partition. But Anil Sharma chose to showcase the macho hero's superman-like charisma gained through blood, deaths and violence. GADAR was inflammatory even in its lyrics and dialogue. Jingoism sometimes works to bring in pots of gold. But it does not improve relationships between man and man. Nor does it make history.

Long before GADAR, films like ZANZEER, SHOLAY, AAJ KI AWAAZ, INSAAF KI TARAZU, BAHU KI AWAAZ, MARD and KANOON TERI MUTTHI MEIN showed little concern for the lives and struggles of ordinary people like peasants, workers and the middle class against victimisation by a corrupt and debased legal and judicial machinery, the cynical machinations of politicians and the unholy alliance between politicians and profiteers. The films undermined all social and political institutions so that, like real life, all legitimate ways of solving problems were subverted and we were left with a top minister whose access had to be through powerful intermediaries. Films like BORDER, HERO, MISSION KASHMIR, ZAMEEN, LOC, have become Bollywood's favourite bogeyman. A runaway hit like JP Dutta's BORDER did not have a single Muslim soldier in the regiment fighting the Pakistanis. How ethical was it to release the film when Hindu-Muslim relations in India were strained? How humane was it to depict Muslims on both sides of the border as cowards and traitors? Often, the commercial filmmaker of a pop masala film is not even aware of the political implications his film carries.

Doesn't 3 IDIOTS take direct potshots at our straitjacketed, marks-laced education system and the people who run it at the institutional level? Isn't TARE ZAMEEN PAR a political indictment on the dictatorial attitudes of insensitive parents and educators who choose to punish their children without even trying to understand what ails them?

LAGAAN toyed around with a fictional story centered on a life-and-death cricket match. Winning a cricket match was the main stake between the illiterate, rustic, but honest and determined team led by Bhuvan and the brutal, dictatorial megalomaniac British officer Andrew Russell and his expert team. For Bhuvan and his team, the match was the only way to evade the heavy burden of tax levied on the draught-ridden village of Champaner in Central India during the Victorian period. For Russell, it was a sure win of the superior 'Colonising Whites' over the weaker 'Colonised Blacks'. It was an ego issue for the Whites where the winning was taken for granted.

Mainstream cinema is often excluded from serious discussions on political cinema because of its focus on entertainment and its self-proclaimed stance of being politically neutral. It is dismissed for being 'superficially' entertaining. Through six songs, two item numbers, four fight scenes, some scenes short in picturesque locations, some family melodrama, lavishly mounted in glossy sets and props, mainstream Indian cinema perpetuates a kind of negative and escapist politics. It sustains the mass audience of illiterate, frustrated and poverty-stricken Indians in a state of perpetual drugged euphoria.

The serpentine queue outside theatres where RAAJNEETI is playing demonstrates its democratic appeal that draws crowds from every section of society across caste, class, age and sex. They are hardly interested in a modern replaying of the Mahabarat which nearly three decades back Shyam Benegal could capture in his film KALYUG.

They wait their turn patiently not for any political agenda but to watch the sensual chemistry between Katrina Kaif and Ranbir Kapoor, the eye-candy looks of Arjun Rampal, the facial acrobatics of Manoj Vajpayee and the simmering anger of Ajay Devgun, not to forget the sizzling shower scene of intimacy between Ranbir Kapoor and Sarah Thomson Cane. Politics in mainstream cinema is a package that cleverly wraps the commercial gimmicks inside it. RAAJNEETI is the best example.

(Shoma A. Chatterji is an award-winning film critic)



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