Just a Thought II

DK sent me a song from this promising new film, Gulaal and it occurred to me how fragile the rationale of PK is. Imagine such a commercial movie (if you can imagine a commercial movie made in PK) that takes as its premise an out-right revolt against the state. Could the Baluchi nationalists project their narrative through celluloid? It isn’t the fact of creativity (I have read some amazing poetry recently on the Baluchi cause that I can share if peeps are interested) but that the state/capital apparatus can make space for such imaginations within the public realm (this despite/due to the facts of Chhattisgarh). Of course, I haven’t seen the movie and it may ultimately be reactionary and (as is the norm regarding “Muslim” themes in Bollywood) confirm and conform the very inequalities of the State. But, I still, you know, just _wish_ for a big popcorn movie that would put out, for the world to see, this threadbare fabric, we call Pakistan.

But, maybe we cannot imagine that ever. Seeing as how Zardari is doing his best Musharraf impression, such a fantasy would threaten reality.

ps. the twitter-verse tells that cell-phone providers are under fire from Zardari as well.
pps. The songs from Gulaal really are amazing!

58 Replies to “Just a Thought II”

  1. Jaysus , didn’t even realise you had a blog! Left my fragrant (!) contributions there!

  2. Apologies, I had assumed you were in India. If you are swinging through London anytime over the next two months, let me know and as I will be there before heading back. And maybe I can see whether I can convert you on AB and my other bugbears!

  3. Of course I would have — but sadly “little” films like Gulaal only very rarely make it to the theaters in NYC! (And, I left India before it released there; I was there on a short vacation).

  4. Amitabh’s 1983 Coolie (I know you hate this guy, but no discussion of representations of “the Muslim” — or more broadly, the “minority” — in Hindi cinema is possible without discussions of his Anthony, or Coolie’s Iqbal, or his 786-wearing Vijay in Deewar with a quarrel with God; actually his billa number is 786 in Coolie as well)

    I have actually mentioned “Coolie” and the 786 episode from “Deewar” in comment 14 and I think you are right that they are important examples. They speak to the strong influence Muslim imagery and symbolism had on the ‘imaginary landscape’ of Bollywood cinema at that time.

    he same sort of “He’s a straight talker”, “He’s tough!”, “Say what you will, he’s a real leader” crap that on its day easily translates to love for all sorts of authoritarians, like Modi and his ilk).]

    This is correct, the urban haute bourgeoise in India, love a man in uniform that can promise he will “make the trains run on time” etc.

  5. Re: “Again a rare example of a film with Muslim leads, more so in this case because it is a sort of romantic love story.”

    BTW, there were others of this ilk during the 1980s: for instance, Nikaah (for god’s sake don’t watch this if you haven’t), but (far more enjoyably); Tawaif (the milieu is a highly idealized and improbable Urdu-enclave in the middle of Bombay, but both Rishi Kapoor and Rati Agnihotri are in sparkling form here); and of course the biggest one of them all, Amitabh’s 1983 Coolie (I know you hate this guy, but no discussion of representations of “the Muslim” — or more broadly, the “minority” — in Hindi cinema is possible without discussions of his Anthony, or Coolie’s Iqbal, or his 786-wearing Vijay in Deewar with a quarrel with God; actually his billa number is 786 in Coolie as well); later on there is the appallingly bad Sanam Bewafa (a huge Salman Khan hit in 1990 or 1991; set in some Pathan neverland).

    In recent years, Muslim leads have tended to happen in films that in one way or another concern terrorism/militantcy, so I haven’t bothered listing any of those. Delhi-6 is a very useful corrective in many ways. Actually, speaking of Abhishek Bachchan, his first film Refugee featured a fascinatingly “liminal” lead character in the first half of the film: a man who is known only as “refugee”, who repeatedly crosses the border between India and Pakistan and literally inhabits the “in between” space, and whose religious affiliation is unclear. [Unfortunately, J.P. Dutta lost his marbles in the second half and forced his “Refugee” to pick sides; he ends up in an Indian army uniform — leaving aside any ideological/political issue, this was implausible in the extreme given the film’s characterization of the character up to that point. As an aside, the film features Suniel Shetty as a fairly positive Pakistani armyman. Speaking of armymen, and somewhat off-topic, Farah Khan’s superhit Main Hoon Na featured a glamorous Pakistani general who’s a great guy; the Indian armymen are also great guys, but the baddies are renegade Indian army-men who want to destroy the Indo-Pak peace process (they were disciplined by the army and disgraced after they killed villagers in a border area in cold blood); one can (depressingly) detect the love/hate admiration of the bourgeoisie for the figure of Musharraf in the film’s uncritical valorization of the Pakistan (the same sort of “He’s a straight talker”, “He’s tough!”, “Say what you will, he’s a real leader” crap that on its day easily translates to love for all sorts of authoritarians, like Modi and his ilk).]

  6. Didn’t know about Talaq Talaq Talaq, but can’t pass up a new film, thanks!

    No worries about Phir Hera Pheri: I saw that in the cinema myself (same thing with Bhool Bhulaiya, Bhaagam Bhaag, Welcome, Singh is King, … you get the idea!)

  7. Ok, that makes more sense, I just didn’t want to be going to see another Roja-type propaganda movie about how nasty terrorists are and how we are all poor victimes and shouldn’t try to understand them at all. Dil Se looks a bit more interesting off the back of your description there.

    I didn’t know that about Nandana Sen – Wow! I haven’t seen Mangal Pandey yet – I know, I know gimme a break though I spend lots of times in villages with no access to movies! but that sounds like an intelligent film there by Khan.

    After having wasted hours on the likes of Tango Charlie and Phir Hera Pheri, you’re in no position to complain :-)

    Easy there tiger! Tango Charlie I saw in a rundown guest house where they had nothing else on cable at night; though it also allowed me to see Umrao Jaan, so I shouldn’t complain. and Phir hera phiri was a birthday treat for a friend and was the first time I had been to see a Hindi film at the cinema for years so I enjoyed it! Cut me some slack here!

    I didn’t even know about that Hyderabadi cinema, hate low production values but will check one out if I get the chance. BTW have you seen this film from the early 80’s “Talaq, Talaq, Talaq” I remember it from when I was a kid. Again a rare example of a film with Muslim leads, more so in this case because it is a sort of romantic love story. Whole thing is one youtube:

  8. Re: “IF all these films turn out to be exactly what I think they are and don’t surprise pleasantly I will want those 10-15 hours of my life back matey!!!!”

    After having wasted hours on the likes of Tango Charlie and Phir Hera Pheri, you’re in no position to complain :-) If nothing else, a Khakee or a Black Friday is better FILM (better scripted, shot, acted, etc.) than those. [But the best gag in Phir Hera Pheri — Akki’s 1000 rupee note that no-one has the change for and that he proffers at the drop of a hat but never has to use — is priceless.]

    Hyderabadi plug: speaking of both representations of Muslims and light entertainment, are you familiar with the dozen or so films in the Hyderabadi Urdu dialect that have been produced over the last 4-5 years? If not, check ’em out: they are Z-grade films with pathetic production values, but I crack up listening to the dialog (these films, made by and featuring Hyderabadis for the most part, rely on the dialect as essentially their only comedic mechanism). “The Angrez” is the first and the most famous, although my own favorite is “Hyderabad Nawabs”. [Um, don’t watch these with your kids; you might not want to explain some of the dialogs; also, a couple of my Pakistani and North Indian friends needed subtitles on a few occasions].

  9. BTW, for anyone who doesn’t already know this, random factoid: Nandana Sen is Amartya Sen’s daughter (her big project is her role as the “muse” in Ketan Mehta’s biopic on Raja Ravi Verma; speaking of which, goddamn it check out Mehta’s Mangal Pandey if folks haven’t — all the complaints about historical inaccuracy have IMO missed the point: the film is subtitled “The Ballad of Mangal Pandey”, announcing its intentions rather clearly; and it very cleverly takes the half a dozen scraps about Pandey available from the colonial account, and re-inscribes it into a (pretty conventional) nationalistic narrative. It’s a smart subversion, taking the bare bones of the colonial narrative and using it to construct a counter-narrative. And I did appreciate the portrayal of Pandey as casteist to the core vis-a-vis the local untouchable sweeper; even better was the Englishman’s attempt to explain to Pandey just what a “company” is)…

  10. “Romantic irrationalism” as far as I am concerned has no meaning in the universe of Dil Se. Rathnam does arguably attempt a sort of “romantic” schema (pre-figured in the lyrics and video imagery of the “Satrangi” song) via the Sufi “seven stages of ishq” bit, but that is certainly not the dominant reading, and doesn’t even sit very easily on the other strands that “happen” in the film. The real center of this film is the character of Manisha Koirala, and rather than say that she is “irrational” I would say rather that the film makes no attempt to “justify” or “explain” why she is doing what she is doing (even her childhood rape by Indian soldiers is a catastrophic cruelty inflicted upon her, I do not see the film as presenting that as an “explanation” for her actions as an adult) — if anything, by film’s end it is the “normal” Amar (SRK) whose rationality is called into question (aside: there is an overt parallel drawn between the soldiers forcing themselves onto Koirala-the-child and Amat forcing a kiss on the adult Koirala): there is simply no language he and she seem to share, nothing that might enable the sort of “persuasion” he pathetically, like the good hero, holds on to till almost the very end.

  11. I don’t agree with that reading of Dil Se’s ending personally.

    I am glad to hear this actually; the guy was coming from a Hindu Nationalist angle anyway but he quoted the dialogue and the last scene of the film ad verbatim which sort of supported his reading. I will check the film out though (again off your recommendation)!

    IF all these films turn out to be exactly what I think they are and don’t surprise pleasantly I will want those 10-15 hours of my life back matey!!!!

  12. I don’t agree with that reading of Dil Se’s ending personally. BTW, Tango Charlie is also interesting that it is just about the only film I can think of with a Muslim man/Hindu woman love story (Devgan/Sen); pity it was such a crappy film though, Nandana Sen notwithstanding!

  13. this is the only commercial Hindi film I can think of to depict Indian army personnel sexually assaulting a girl in a militancy-hit area.

    Well, there is an attempted rape scene in “Tango Charlie”, the attempt is unsuccesful and it is a Naxalite female guerilla who is the victim but it is set in the Naxalite affected parts of Andhra Pradesh. Of course the hero stops the rape attempt and kills his colleague to keep the honour of the security forces ‘intact’ so you could say this isn’t necessarily an accurate portrayal of what reality is. this film while quite jingoistic and lop-sided in its class-sympathies is interesting as well in that the mentor figure to Bobby Deol’s figure is a Muslim sargeant in the BSF who is bascially the perfect solider. IT will be hard to find any movie that will contain any kind of criticism of the Indian army and any criticisms will be contextualised as reactions to provocations or ‘mistakes’. We haven’t reached the stage where a cinema audience will be able to react without getting worked up to such portrayals. Ironic how the the police, civil service, politicians and every other branch of the state doesn’t suffer from the same problem but then most people see regularly just what these parts of the state are really like.

    I haven’t seen Dil Se, heard good things about it but was put off when I read an article that used the death scene to try and bascially portray terrorism and suicide bombing as a form of romantic irrationalism; which I think is but of a cop out from a middle-class perspective that endorses state violence. Still will check it out.

    Thanks for the Satyam site, looks great.

  14. PS– if there’s anyone reading this thread who has NOT seen Dil Se, I highly recommend it. For me, the most interesting thing about this film is how it moves from the “periphery” to the “center”, beginning in a vaguely “North-eastern” locale, then what is clearly Ladakh, and finally in Delhi. Rathnam, that is to say, brings the violence, the ambiguity, “home” to the heart of the republic as it were, de-stabilizing the normalcy of the recognizable metro as it were (culminating in the “normal” Hindu middle-class journalist at the receiving end of police interrogators). It is a dark film, that offers no solution and no exit. Really remarkable that the man who made Roja and Bombay should have come up with something that is so very interesting (those two films were fairly bashed by the academic left; but sadly Dil Se was utterly ignored — it’s always been a pet peeve of mine that so many progressives in the Indian academy are so indifferent or un-informed when it comes to popular cinema; they only engage with the latter as a symptom of a certain sort of politics, and thus only engage with it at the level of citing “test cases”/exhibits in support of an argument. It’s valuable work in its own right, but reductive)…

  15. Yes, I did see Omkara, but in general, while I preferred it to most films, I am not a big fan of Vishal Bharadwaj’s Shakespeare adaptations — didn’t think all that much of Maqbool (adaptation of Macbeth) either. For an interesting discussion on the latter, see http://satyamshot.wordpress.com/2009/03/18/debating-vishal-bharadwajs-maqbool.

    Omkara does have sensational lyrics by Gulzar, though. After a few years of exaggerated “preciousness” (including some unpardonable examples in “Saathiya”, such as the “Chupke se” song with its incongruous “…aur Mir ki baat ho” line), this for me was a tour de force, ranging from the raunchy and earthy to the sublime “Naina Thag Lenge” (Raahat Fateh Ali Khan)…

  16. Saathiya is an authorized remake of Mani Rathnam’s Alai Payuthey, which, even though it is basically the same at a scene-to-scene level, is just way better (Madhavan, one of the most gifted actors of his generation IMO, plays the male lead; although I would prefer Rani Mukherjee to Shalini any day). The music is also mostly the same, but to my non-Tamil ear it mostly sounds better in the Tamil original (except for the song Chori pe Chori, which I find just as enjoyable; the point is moot because Shaad Ali (who was Rathnam’s assistant on the Tamil film) left most of it out in the Hindi film)… But Alai Payuthey/Saathiya were a lot less problematic than the other love stories. The only way I can express it is by saying that Rathnam REPRESENTS a middle class milieu, but doesn’t hold it up as some kind of “ideal”, the way for instance a Barjatya does in Main Ne Pyar Kiya, Vivaah, etc. (In general, of course, Rathnam is among the more interesting commercial film directors on women; politically, his rather dim interventions like Roja and Bombay were compensated by the superb, chaotic, disturbing, and utterly memorable Dil Se. Aside: this is the only commercial Hindi film I can think of to depict Indian army personnel sexually assaulting a girl in a militancy-hit area. In recent times more than one film has shown massacres and brutality (“Mission Kashmir”; “Yahaan”), but not rape; and the massacres are generally presented as mistakes (certainly this is so in “Mission Kashmir”; although the film has one of the most compelling portrayals of the “good”/nationalist Muslim in Sanjay Dutt’s Inayat Khan)).

  17. If you guys want interesting discussions on Hindi cinema (also other cinemas, but mostly Hindi cinema), my favorite writer/blogger in that area is Satyam; check out satyamshot.wordpress.com….

  18. Yes, I do agree with DK and Sepoy though, it has been a long time since I have had a decent conversation about Hindi cinema; been a pleasure and it has given me the motivation to try out some of these DVDs my family and friends keep on sending me!

  19. The only thing worse than Amar, Akbar, Anthony was that awful song, “John, Jani, Janardhan!”


  20. Phir hera phiri is kind of like the Adam Sandler films or Rob Schneider; absolutely no pretensions about what they are and revel in their crassness; you can’t take them too seriously. Actually one of my friends loved the film and dragged me to see it at the cinema. It was ok.

    I liked Maine Pyar and Mujshe Shaadi and also Saathiya; mainly cos they were light and the songs were good. The gender roles are problematic and if you look at it from a critical perspective quite conservative. There is also a steady underlying drumbeat of religiousity that runs through many of the films which serve to prop-up an ‘everyday common-sense’ of traditional upper caste Hinduism as well; through the ritual roles allocated for the family, the expectations involved according to ones’ age and gender and the repetitive use of various rituals and temple visits as plot devices. I find this a bit troubling and irritating tbh.

    AAA is just incredibly dated and really takes itself a little too seriously for its own good. Though by now my dislike of AB has probably ruined any capacity to enjoy a film where he is the lead actor.

    Qayamat se Qayamat tak was IMO the best of the teenybopper love stories post-Bobby

    There are 101 reasons to detest that film; I think I had to leave the room everytime my sister and friends wanted to watch it because apparently they couldn’t put up with my sarky comments. All I can say is that this film has left me deeply traumatised.

    Bobby was the kind of film that appealed to my parents’ generation along with Julie when they thought they were being daring and progressive. I find it cute for this reason and the music is ok but otherwise not much here really.

    BTW did you see Omkara, for some inane reason I got pressured into seeing some other film and missed this.

  21. Let me chime in with DK and thank everyone for a wonderfully informative discussion.
    Also, Amar, Akbar, Anthony rocks.

  22. Can’t believe you can stomach Phir Hera Pheri but not Amar Akbar Anthony…yikes! To each his own, I guess. (I watch just about everything that comes out — but doesn’t stop me cribbing later; Qayamat se Qayamat tak was IMO the best of the teenybopper love stories post-Bobby). But the gender politics have been getting ever more problematic with so many of these new films also hewing closely to the “strip club” aesthetic that has so marred hip-hop too…

    I found Maximum City to be quite an overrated book; it is definitely engaging, but not very insightful — the lengthy chapter on Bollywood was especially “off”, although his highlighting of police brutality etc. was welcome. I haven’t read Chandra’s other long novel, but definitely recommend Sacred Games…

  23. On an endnote can I just say how much I detest Aamir Khan at a personal level; I remmber at one stage every girl I knew was swooing over him in that absurd film Quaymat se Quaymat.

  24. Good responses here, except for “Still going to blame you when they disappoint though.” :-) I mean, try and watch these with an open mind buddy

    ROTFLMAO, ok, lemme replace the ‘when’ with an ‘if’ – that sound fairer to you?

    The only reason why I saw Hanuman Returns is because I have some young kids as nephews/nieces so it was good to watch it with them and because I love animation films and Hindu mythological epics, I loved watching the Krishna animated films as well. Am a sucker for this stuff!

    As for Hollywood, I would add though that the main problem is that although these actors/resses and many directors and producers are progressive; they still operate within a studio system that by large is relatively conservative and is wired into the logic of the market and doesn’t take many risks. Also I have honed in on the activist figures; most are quite liberal but are too self-indulgent or pampered to do anything much about it, especially if activisim involves any level of discomfort which it does. The other main problem is that Israel and support for Israel by the US is a huge black hole.

    Comedies: I was thinking more along the lines of Aaja Nachle, Phir Hera Phiri, Maine Pyaar Kyon Kiya, Ladies Tailor, No Entry, Salaaa-I-Ishq, Mujse Shaadi Karogi etc. Light entertainment I know, I know, but I am an avid consumer of trash low brow stuff as long as it isn’t bigoted. Course the eye candy on offer doesn’t hurt either.

    as a fan of Amar Akbar Anthony

    Okay, man that is too cheesy even for me; you will need to see a pir, sadhu or some other holy man for that; even I can’t save you if you like this saccharine fare :D

    Re Muslims in the industry, that is interesting, I don’t know enough to say much. I really liked Vikram Chandra’s “Red Earth, Pouring Rain” which I would highly recommend if you haven’t already read it. I haven’t read Sacred Games, it got some mixed reviews here, haven’t read Maximum City either which everyone raves about – Mehta annoyed me with some of his interviews he gave after the Mumbai attacks but I should read the book before I make up my mind.

  25. PS– it is interesting to speculate to what extent the difference in representations in contemporary Hindi films has come about because of the relatively greater success of Muslims in the contemporary film industry as compared to previously; I’m not talking about the superstar-actors here per se, but the increasing numbers of script-writers, directors/filmmakers, etc. which is I think the more relevant metric here (although, one should never dismiss the symbolic potency and “normalizing” power of the superstar-actor imagery, i.e. of people utterly comfortable in the “Khan” skin today (as opposed to 50 years ago; perversely, even the “Muslim-as-underworld-bhai” representation seems to me to be several steps “better” than the jihadi or “good, frail, old, Muslim” representations — given the link between representations of criminality and glamor; more specifically (following Arendt) the bourgeois’ secret and not-so-secret fantasies about criminality)…

    Speaking of criminality, interesting representations, etc., everybody should read “Sacred Games”, IMO the best representation of the whole terrorism/underworld/Bombay “landscape”, and written by a Bollywood scriptwriter to boot…

  26. Good responses here, except for “Still going to blame you when they disappoint though.” :-) I mean, try and watch these with an open mind buddy (I say this given your earlier statement about Kashyap and how you haven’t seen anything that would lead you to believe he’s capable of a strong critique — when you seem to have seen Hanuman returns (!) but not Black Friday!; personally I don’t know if Kashyap is capable of great coherence, but given the number of films he’s had banned or run into trouble (counting Gulaal, that’s 3 or 4), he is hardly an establishment figure in any sense. [This holds even when he makes love stories; the recent “Dev D” was not a very good film IMO, but it was relentlessly calculated to offend the SRK/love story sort of sensibility].

    You’ve converted me on Hollywood. I will add that if you are adducing these examples, then we should also have to include examples of more local activisms in Bollywood too: Irfan Khan’s advocacy on the disappearing mangrove cover situation in Mumbai/nexus with corrupt builders; Nana Patekar, a Shiv Sainik but someone whose strong advocacy on behalf of Mumbai mill workers is very welcome; or Priyadarshan’s (the director of recent imbecilic comedy infamy)* activism on behalf of silk weavers (I believe this even led to a recent, utterly commerically unviable, film on the subject). None of these efforts have garnered major media coverage (which speaks volumes about the sort of media that’s there, and the sort of consuming public that’s there), and I don’t suggest this sort of thing is “enough”, merely that it is easy to miss these things if one has washed one’s hands off the state of affairs entirely.

    *[Man, I really detest those comedies. Although, one of the recent ones, the excrescential “Hey Baby”, features the sort of “unmarked” Muslim character I was referring to earlier (Fardeen Khan’s “Ali”). Some other recent ones include Jimmy Shergill’s character in “Munnabhai MBBS”; Gul Panang’s character in “Dor”; Shreyas Talpade’s character in “Iqbal”, and a host of character/side-roles. (It’s the relatively “unmarked” nature of these characters that interests me, given the relative lack of history of this sort of thing; of course, if we are talking about the marked-but-“positive” representations of the sort you were referring to, there too there has been a definite resurgence in recent times, from Atul Kulkarni in “Khakee” to (sort of) Kunal Kapoor in “Rang de Basanti” (although he is saddled with a fanatical father in Om Puri; to be fair the film also features a caricatured Sangh Parivari in Atul Kulkarni) to Akshay Kumar as “Insaan” (as a fan of Amar Akbar Anthony, I have a great weakness for his lovable turn as Amjad Rickshawalla, and his horny burkha-wearing love interest Esha Deol’s character here) and several others. Definitely a huge improvement from the nineties/Gadar-era stuff, but of course the merest first steps.]

  27. On the BSP/SP – yes of course anybody who is a progressive in a real sense will be favourably inclined towards these parties; not because of what they do or their leadership and even their policies but because of their social constituencies and who they represent. They are the symbols and the vehicles on which most of the marginalised and oppressed have projected their desires on and they do represent the only effective challenge to date to the established conservative Hindu social and religious order in large parts of northern India. They have their own major problems which include their own casteism, unprinciplied lust for power, shortsighted leadership and willingness to compromise with ideologial enemies but there is potential for something more that is encapsulated within the hopes of those who form their supporters that has emancipatory promise imo. The main problem here is, of course, the Backward-Dalit divide which is a separate topic.

  28. Qalander,

    Arrgghgh, lost most of my reply again on my wretched computer, so will just jot down the main points from what I can remember since I am too lazy to bash the whole thing out again :P

    1) Yes, Jabbar Patel’s biopic wasn’t really great cinemea but I think it is important was that a film on a seminal Dalit figure like Ambedkar was made. I think it has immense value, especially since most Dalits have very little direct familiarity with much of Ambedkar’s thought or writings but only encounter him as a statue, a public figure of history and whatever watered down mash the BSP serves to them for their own ends. There was another biopic of Ambedkar but I haven’t had the chance to see it.

    2) The ad campaign was just stupid; anybody who knew the reality of UP at that time knew this. I can’t believe you are quoting me those figures with a straight face – are we seriously going to take those statistics at face value. In any case, given UP’s mammoth size population and rural population such averages can conceal a relatively high crime rate. Not to mention the other problems, I remember during the elections I was in a small town near Gorakhpur and the SP candidate rolled by with his party workers armed to the teeth, when out of nowhere the DM showed up with a few truckloads of police and confiscated the weapons and took the candidate into custody. I commented how impressive the police were in acting quickly; my friends who were from the region just looked at me oddly and said that the only reason it happened was because of the EC strictures which put in place rigid guidelines on the electoral procedures and the fact that the centre had dispatched battalions of CRPF police to oversee the elections – a passing observer piped in with the comment that it was no use relying on the UP police since they were the worst criminals in the state!

    3) Yes, of course the BJP has toned down its antics as it has had to adjust to the reality of coalition politics and the Hindutva programme ran into its own constraints, not to mention how hollow the ‘party’ with a difference claims sounded once people saw just how similar to the other corrupt and incompetent govts the BJP were actually like once in power. But when their stars were riding high and it was in the ascendant, many critical voices were notably absent in opposing them. It is probably safer to take a stand against them now than it was in the 1990s; since there is little hope of them gaining unadulterated power at the national level especially and with the rise of regional and lower caste movements, they have been checked to a large degree.

    4) I don’t think it is fair to say that Arundhati Roy has not been that critical on Nandigram; she has been on that divide on the left along with Sumit Sarkar, Maheswati Devi, Tanika Sarkar et al. Who actually attacked the CPI(M) and the left in general over its actions in Nandigram and Singur and over forcible land acquisition as well as the silence of many other left academics. The sickening, “both sides should stop the violence” approach mouthed by Left-orientated academics like Jayati Ghosh which was a de facto way of supporting the CPI(M) was truly revolting and an abdication of responsibility to tell truth to power that committed intellectuals should have. They were also critical of intellectuals like Chomsky, Zinn and Bello who urged unity in the name of resisting ‘neo-liberal forces’ in West Bengal. Nandigram was an important dividing issue and it was disappointing that so many public figures who would have otherwise have spoken out if it had been any other state govt, chose to keep quiet because here it was a LF govt involved. The JNU set were a real let down in this regard and some of them have become too close to specific parties like the CPI (M) for their own good. Roy has her own problems and I am not a fan of hers, though she has got many of the basic things right. She, however, has been consistently critical of the established left parties in India from the early days of her public career, as can be seen as her attacks on the CPI(M) in Kerala and its ambiguous stand on caste issues – amongst others which caused EMS to write that whining reply in Frontline to her criticisms.

    5) I don’t think it makes sense to include politicians here, since they will have to make numerous compromises to stay in or acquire power. Social activists, and other public figures who want to make an intervention aren’t subject to the same constraints and so shouldn’t feel bound by the same pressures. In anycase, the mid-80s was still a time when Congress was riding high and at the central level and northern India I remember to say or oppose the Congress almost made you a pariah in most establishment circles; hence the need to critique was all the more and the dangers to Congress power to being subject to such internal criticism was much less. None of this was forthcoming from AB of course at the time. I don’t expect actors or actresses to set any benchmarks or being incredibility consistent in this regard but I would expect them to maybe take some strong stands on issues affecting their country domestically and on huge foreign policy issues (Tibet unfortunately simply isn’t such an issue for India). I would say, class and communal polarisation along with the environment are pretty key issues for India and Indians, if you can’t take a stand on these to some extent, then that is pretty poor imo.

    6) Hollywood celebs – at least the liberal ones are a lot more engaged than you think and more organised. Even from the 80s onwards there was a backlash against Reagonomics and his foreign policy – Michael Douglas and Elizebeth Montgomery amongst others set up the “Committee for Concern” a Hollywood pressure group that organised public marches and meeting to protest against US policy in Central America. Sarandon, Christopher Reeve, Alec Baldwin – who were all rising stars at the time and not well secure in their careers founded the Creative Coalition which set out to raise the profile of a diverse range of issues like foreign policy, access to the poor to education and campaign finance reform. The Hollywood Women’s Political Committee (HWPC) organised people from across the industry to make protests linked to US policy in the Americas, Bob Foxworth and Liz Montgomery organised a meet between Daniel Ortega and hundreds of Hollywood figures at their private residence which also was given to fund raising for those affected by the Nicaraguan conflict. Martin Sheen has been arrested 60 times, that 60 TIMES in protests over the rights of illegal immigrants and has spearheaded Project Abolition attacking Bush Jr.’s ballistic missile defence programme. Danny Glover came out after the WTC attacks – didn’t even wait for the build-up to Iraq 2003, to attack US foreign policy as a major problem in driving conflict against stability. Jessica Lange used the lifetime award given to her at the San Sebastian Film Festival to attack Bush’s admin and entire policy regime a speech she made 15 times; Sheen heavily criticised Bush in op-ed pieces and turn up to one protest with a cross strapped to his back and his mouth taped to indicate how NBC the sponsors of his vehicle The West Wing, were attempting to get him to water down attacks on the President. When Cesar-Chavez went on his hunger strike for migrant workers rights, a whole range of figures like Lou Diamond Phillips, Dos almos and Sheen came out to support him. Glover and Robbins took part in organising camps before the Seattle demos, before taking part in the demos themselves. While actors like Penn, have made the effort to go into black neighbourhoods to campaign for candidates like Nader. Now a lot of these efforts are partial and problematic but I think they are an impressive response, especially since there is the explicit linkage with anti-capitalism and US policy both abroad and home. In a place like the US that is a pretty gutsy thing to do. Israel is as you say, the one blind spot and there is a lot of ambiguity here; but this is a specific and generic problem with the US and to a lesser degree with Europe where Zionism is still seen in many quarters as a progressive cause for Liberals and leftists. But I don’t think this activism is that ‘safe’ at all; it probably doesn’t endanger one physically but it does mark you out strongly.

    7) Yes, it is harder to make such stands in India but hardly impossible. Figures like Vijay Tendulkar have managed to do so, in the heartland of a movement like the Shiv Sena, which really is thuggish and violent so I am sceptical as to how much real danger there really is. And AB’s house got smashed by Raj Thackeray, well cry me a river matey, maybe next time he invites the uncle Bal Thackeray to one of his social does, he can complain about the nephew.

    I haven’t seen Dev either and don’t have that one, so will add it to the list. To be honest, most of what I saw when I was in India last were the comedies; which were mostly harmless and brainless fun; except perhaps for the stereotyped gender roles they had for women. Still going to blame you when they disappoint though.

  29. Thanks DK — unfortunately, the subtitle situation with Marathi films is a rather difficult one; but I do remember seeing a 2002 film called Vastupurush that touched upon inter-caste relations. Not directly relevant, but a superb representation of the mindset of a dying feudalism (and a great movie) is Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Elippathayam (released on DVD in the West as The Rat Trap), as far as I know one of only two Adoor films available with subtitles…

  30. RE: regional cinema being better than mainstream Hindi cinema regarding the portrayal of Dalits characters and actors, an old 90s film I would recommend is Jabbar Patel’s Marathi film “Mukta”. It is very hammy and somewhat predictable staging of Brahman-Maratha-Dalit characters and their positions, but has some unexpected moments by thinking of intersections between racism and black anger (there is an African-American character who unfortunately sounds totally Jamaican), Dalit panthers and the Bhakti poetry of “untouchable” poets like Chokhamela. (I don’t know if a subtitled version is available, alas.)

    PS: really enjoying this conversation.

  31. The Mammooty biopic by Jabbar Patel is tedious as a cinematic matter, but it’s a welcome film — I was lucky enough to get to see it at an Asia society screening. And Mammooty is such a wonderful actor it was a joy to see him essay the role.

    Not to nit pick, but on the ad campaign (which was indeed a disaster), the reason those ads were able to survive legal challenge from the BSP is because even Central government statistics showed that per capita, U.P. was in fact among the lower-crime states in the country — nevertheless the ads were lame and the BSP was successfully able to paint them as lies/idiotic, but they were colorable (lies, damn lies, and statistics, and all that…)

    Aside: I see where you are coming from re: the PAC pogroms, and I do empathize; but it is equally undeniable that the post-BJP Congress of today is not “the same as” the BJP (this is not for reasons of principle, but electoral logic: once upon a time such tactics might have helped the party; now, the benefit of any pogroms would be reaped by the BJP; and of course the Congress is basically extinct in U.P. :-)) But back to this question of the film industry, there is simply no evidence for your assertion that more are sympathetic to the BJP than to a more liberal outlook — it seems to me you are inferring the former from the fact that cowardice, imbecility, and opportunism appear to reign supreme, but I don’t see that as a tenable inference (obviously not talking about the likes of Nana Patekar here, who is a member of the Shiv Sena, though perversely Nana makes more secular public utterances than many others). My point on amitabh was not to hold him up as some kind of engaged figure, but to make the point that, within the context of Indian politics and celebrities — the sorts of morally compromised relationships with dubious politicians that you point to are not inconsistent with personal liberalism. This is sad but true: after all, even arundhati roy raised nowhere near as much of a stink about Nandigram as she does about brutality by right-wingers, and in her recent piece advocating azaadi for Kashmir in Outlook, seemed willing to accord the Kashmiri separatists the benefit of the doubt to an extent she would not, I suspect, be grant other Indian politicians; Aamir Khan was criticized by pro-Tibetan activists for participating in the Olympic torch relay, and surely he is not going to criticize the Congress as harshly as he does the BJP, is he? and now the CPI(M) is going to tie up with Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal, who till yesterday were the BJP’s ally and whose role in anti-Christian violence can charitably be described as passively complicit. Yet if I were to infer a lack of secularism on the part of Prakash Karat, I don’t think that would be accurate. On Amitabh and the Congress (or anyone and the Congress), one didn’t need to wait till the Hashimpura etc. massacres — what was left to be said after the 1984 anti-Sikh pogroms? [Personally, and this is off-topic, that sort of thing is why, despite the degenerate thuggery and intellectual bankruptcy, I’ve always had more of a soft spot for the BSP and Samajwadi (more the former) than the Congress when it comes to U.P. (and, as I’m sure you remember, Mayawati campaigned for Modi in 2002, to preserve the alliance with the BJP in U.P.).

    Perhaps you are right that Western celebrities are more engaged, but if we are going to judge celebrities by their blind spots, shouldn’t the Israeli-Palestinian dispute come into play? I have seen nothing on that front (I mention that conflict because it is easily the most famous one from the American perspective); heck Hollywood used to routinely make apologias for the IRA too (as late as “The Devil’s Own”). The activism that is on display is all too often of the “safe” variety — I don’t judge them for it, but, accounting for the differences in political nastiness (yes, the right in america can be vitriolic, but the right in India is deadly; think of bottles thrown at Amitabh’s house, at the violence unleashed by even a minor figure like Raj Thackeray against the Bachchans’ remarks last year, at the Shiv Sena activists showing up outside Dilip Kumar’s house to hurl abuse and possibly do worse; the Gujarat ban on Aamir’s films; the Samajwadi hooligans outside SRK’s house, etc.; especially where female celebrities are concerned, courting political controversy can be dicey), I just don’t see a difference in kind (the really committed folks like Clooney do have analogues in Bombay too, but these are exceptions).

    Anyways, not to go around in circles, we see this situation differently; but I do recommend that you check out some contemporary Hindi films, as otherwise it is easy for one’s impression to be fixed by films from the past. Translation: check Khakee out; it is an outright masala movie, but in the grand old tradition — and Bachchan’s presence there makes perfect sense, given the cinematic history his cop persona taps into; I assume you’ve seen Dev? This film had the dubious distinction of being bashed by both left and right in India, but personally I thought it was damn good, if too much like a stage-play.

  32. Hmmm, actually I was in Poorvanchal in 2006 and 2007 but was based in some remote villages for fieldwork; so I didn’t know about Bachchan’s role in the polio vaccine coverage. I don’t know who has told you it was a success, in Kushinagar and Deoria it certainly was not, at least on the ground, no matter what official statistics would say. We can differ on his connection to the SP, that wasn’t the understanding I have of it; but certainly his ad campaign and support for the Mulayam Singh govt of that admin really reinforced the impression amongst many that he was supporting a govt that was heavily criminalised – of course most govts are but Mulayam Singh took it to a new level. In one poll gathering I attended, he was reduced to literally apologising for the behaviour of his MLAs in the two bordering constituencies because of their actions. Also AB’s support for the Congress, of course it was motivated by his closeness to the Gandhi family; I don’t think it makes it any better if one knew what the Congress govt of the 80s in UP was like and what it did to cover up the anti-Muslim pogroms of the PAC. I am sorry I just can’t let that go; you can dismiss it lightly but it was a real shock to me and was the time I just stopped watching his films (quite liked him till then). Can’t explain what a poisoned atmosphere it was then and just how terrified many Muslim communities were of the police, who effectively were getting away with murder. The whole brouhahah over AB’s supposed challenge to VP Singh one of the few decent politicians and the antics of the Congress thugs towards the latter just made things more distasteful. I am not blaming AB for this and neither was he the cause, nor did he approve any of these actions; but he continued to associate himself with a regime that did and never spoke a word in criticism and for that I certainly can’t have the meliorist view you have of him.

    Yeah, we can differ on Bollywood celebs; perhaps I am too harsh on them but really very few of them are progressive or liberal in any genuine way. Aamir Khan, yes, you are right but he is a relative rarity. Obviously, though I don’t want to be crude about it, I would expect figures from the minority community (Muslims and Christians here) to be more progressive at least as regards communalism than many of their Hindu counterparts. And here we don’t really have a lot of names do we – I mean ok Akshay Kumar says he isn’t going to use anti-Pak dialog in his films – fair does and kudos for him but this is the best we can come up with? Please, can’t we do better. The other figures you cite are all directors or as you say secondary-tier actors/actresses. If we were to look at the top 50 or so stars I doubt we could come up with more than a handful that could be described as liberal or progressive in a meaningful sense, most would be indifferent and a fair few would either by BJP types or inclined that way. No way would this be true of European cinema or Hollywood. I might be overly harsh on Bollywood since as you say my main engagement came in the 90s, after which I grew sick of it and stopped watching in the main and the situation was by far much worse. But if things aren’t as bad as you say they are – isn’t it odd that we haven’t managed to make a decent film that portrays Muslims and other minorities in a sensitive but entertaining fashion? What films do exist in this trend are either arthouse productions or come from regional cinema. I don’t think we have been anywhere near as honest as tackling issues like communalism or caste; whereas there have been efforts to tackle the issue of racism and class European and American cinema (though not class so much).

    Re Dalits in cinema – there were a raft of ‘social’ films that examined the problem of caste discrimination that came out in the 1950s and early 60s, I forget many of them now mainly because they were preachy and not very good, Sujata being the exception. There was also the biopic of Ambedkar with Mamooly – which is extremely hard to get hold of for some reason even though the NFB funded it. And we shouldn’t forget Shyam Benegal’s Ankur which has Dalits as the lead roles.

    I haven’t seen Khakee though my father sent me a DVD of it – AB’s picture on the front out me off but off your recommendation I will check it out – and blame you if it disappoint :D

  33. While many Bollywood celebrities lack the sophistication/coherence of a Sean Penn, sarandon, clooney or so, I think it is no less gutsy of an Akshay Kumar to take the stand (as he did some years ago) that he would not utter any Paki-bashing dialogues; this was a non-trivial gesture when one considers that as an action hero (as he was back then), akshay was a logical candidate for many of the films that featured pakistani jihadis as bad guys etc. [Urmila Matondkar later joined him in this refusal, although it isn’t clear what she was being offered to begin with]. And the industry figures who are clearly critical of the Hindu right include Aamir Khan (on an unrelated note, his advocacy on behalf of the Narmada displaced, and subsequent refusal to apologize to Modi, got his films banned in Gujarat; he remained unyielding), and directors Raj Kumar Santoshi (his 2004 film Khakee, starring both Amitabh and Akshay, remains the best masala movie indictment of the hysteria of the “national security state”, and is IMO one of the best Hindi films of the decade), Rakeysh Mehra (via his films, not his interviews), and of course Govind Nihalani (Dev was also a powerful, if somewhat uncinematic film); it is unimaginable that Sanjay Dutt (who recently joined the Samajwadi as well, and will oddly enough be contesting from Lucknow) could be other than hostile to those political formations. Some of the not-so-powerful (Gul Panang, Rahul Bose, Nandita Das) have, as you mentioned, acquitted themselves even better…

  34. Where I think we agree is that most celebrities do not use their positions of privilege for any constructive interventions (whatever one might say, Aamir Khan is better than others in this respect). However, this cowardice does not lead me to believe that these celebrities are basically on the BJP bandwagon (the ones who are are well known to be so). In Hollywood, interventions vis-a-vis Central America I am not familiar with, and I defer to you on those; but my impression is that they tend to play it very safe (I mean, what can one say about an Academy that cannot even bring itself to award “Waltz with Bashir”, preferring the far safer “departures”?)…

  35. PS– I left out Lagaan and its insulting portrayal deliberately, because I was only referring to films where one of the leads is a dalit character. [Aside: Sultan Ahmed’s Ganga ki Saugandh (1978), and its imagining of a Dalit/Muslim/Brahmin alliance against an oppressive thakur, and its boldness on Islamic “egalitarianism” as some sort of anti-casteist force, was in many ways a prescient representation of U.P.’s emerging caste-formations over the next few decades. This film is today all but forgotten in urban India, but it was a huge hit at the time, and I would guess continues to resonate in milieus far removed from Bombay and Delhi multiplexes. While this film too can certainly be critiqued for positing a virtuous upper-caste man as leader of the rebellion (rather than someone from the Dalit community shown in the film), the representation of Dalits is vastly better than in Lagaan, over two decades later.]

    Aside 2: personally I think the greatest “mainstream” Hindi film of the last 25-30 years is J.P. Dutta’s Ghulami, positively Homeric in its sweep and yet searing in its anger.

  36. Re: (1): you are entirely unfair to Amitabh Bachchan, who joined the Samajwadi before Amar Singh was anybody there. In fact his initial ties were with Mulayam Singh Yadav, and only over the last few years has Amar Singh come to the fore. Amitabh’s anti-communalism is definitely a part of the story (his joining of the Congress was likely the result of his personal friendship with the Gandhis, and I doubt ideology played a role there; but ideology is unquestionably part of the reason for his distance from the BJP). Amitabh, at least in the context of U.P. politics, was and is associated with the most pro-Muslim political formation in the state (that formation is itself bankrupt and a far cry from Ram Manohar Lohia’s promise, but that’s a different story). You mention the 2007 assembly elections — you might also mention his stellar work in urging Muslim communities in eastern U.P. who had been boycotting the polio vaccine due to rumors that it was a sterilization plot, to trust the vaccine (Bachchan was called in after even clerics weren’t having the desired impact; and his campaign turned things around in a huge way). He is not a model of political engagement — but you dismiss his contributions as nothing but a big zero, which is grossly unfair. [Citing Dilip Kumar and Naseer as counter-examples is pretty amusing; certainly I am not aware of the sort of engagement on their part that we have seen from Rahul Bose and Nandita Das, or even from a far more “mainstream” figure like Javed Akhtar.]

    I think it is reductive and grossly unfair to characterize B’wood celebrities on the whole as “tend to favour a sort of soft, bourgeois variant of saffronist nationalism. This comes across in many of their interviews and private statements. I think this is a typical reaction of a segment of the middle class in India and one of the reasons why the BJP/Hindu nationalism enjoyed such a surge in support so quickly – this segment stopped supporting the Congress, which had pandered to it, especially at the local level and switched to the BJP.” I guess we see it differently and I’ll leave it at that.

  37. FFS had a huge reply typed out and then lost it :( I will recapt the main points here as I don’t have time to redo everything.

    1) Not many stars directly campaign for the BJPO, this is true; but my point was that many of them, particularly the Hindu ones, tend to favour a sort of soft, bourgeois variant of saffronist nationalism. This comes across in many of their interviews and private statements. I think this is a typical reaction of a segment of the middle class in India and one of the reasons why the BJP/Hindu nationalism enjoyed such a surge in support so quickly – this segment stopped supporting the Congress, which had pandered to it, especially at the local level and switched to the BJP. the fact that most actors/actresses support either the BJP or the Congress speaks volumes imo about their basic mindset imo. I can’t accept the example of Amitabh Bachchan, so he didn’t support the BJP so what? He joined the Congress at a low nadir when it was communalising relations between religious communities, hobnobs with crytpo-wannabe fascists like Bal Thackeray and the only reason he is with the SP is because of Amar Singh and the latters efforts to save him from bankruptcy not because of any ideological commitment to anti-communalism. This buffoon became a political laughing stock in UP before the 2007 assembly elections with his ridiculous adverts on behalf of the UP state govt (in reality the SP) that there was no/little crime in UP. I was in UP at the time and no one took this clown seriously. I don’t think he should be used as a yardstick to measure political commitment (not that this is what you did but just wanted to mention it).

    2) I just don’t agree with you about Hollywood et al. I don’t think US or European cinema is some bastion of rebellion but it is broadly liberal rather than conservative, esepcially on domestic issues. Even in Hollywood there a number of topics from the 1980s where I would say in the national spectrum it was more progressive than conservative; issues like race-relations, racism, gender violence, US policy in the Central Americas. Quite a sizeable segment of Hollywood made continous interventions in public on behalf of these causes. And I am sorry but there were prominent figures who were critical of the Bush admin way before the invasion of Iraq – and I don’t just mean the usual suspects of Penn, Robbins, Sarandon, Glover and Baldwin. By contrast openly conservative figures are a minority – Heston (now dead), Woods, Scott and who else? By Contrast do we really see mainstream Bollywood actors and actresses taking unpopular or controversial political stands? They might defend themselves from criticism from social conservatives like Shetty but how many could be said to have taken up some causes to increase social awareness as opposed to some PR-related charity work? I can only think of Rahul Bose, who has done this (though I haven’t kept up with events for a while on this front) and Naseerhuddin Shah with to an extent Dilip Kumar from an earlier period. Indian politicians ‘nastier’ than American ones?! The right in the US can be pretty vitriolic too and if one doesn’t have any political ambitions, being a mainstream and successful actor is one of the few positions of privelege you can speak out from. If they feel intimidated, I don’t think ordinary people have much chance. If writers like Arundhati Roy and Maheswati Devi can challenge the state, I don’t think actors can cry off so easily (I am not asking them to be martyrs here but some activism on progressive causes which just isn’t token would be nice).

    3) Yes, of course Dalits and adivasis are the real invisibles of the Hindi cinematic representation and like with Muslims their portrayal tends to be problematic when it does occur. There some notable examples you omit here; the Dalit cripple in “Lagaan” who eventually is allowed to join the villagers cricket team against the British is one, but this is a condescending and in many ways insulting representation when you think about it which angered many Dalit intellectuals (rightly). There are also the social filsm which are somewhat better in this regard- Bimal Roy’s “Sujata” is remarkable for its direct tackling of casteism and for doing it at such an early period in Hindi cinema. This story of an inter-caste marriage between a Brahmin man and a Dalit girl is an important contribution to the issue and is well acted and scored. Some of Satyajit Ray’s films cover the exploitative nature of mainstream Hindu society with the adivasis as in “Ari Din Yatri”. Ironically these days even when there there are films about dalits like the forthcoming “Ye Hausla” it is difficult to get Dalit actors or actresses to play these roles (Sameera Reddy selected in this case).

    Caste remains one of the final frontiers to breach for Bollywood cinema – I think though regional cinema is better on this score.

  38. DK– I quite liked Delhi-6, have been meaning to write a review but haven’t gotten around to it. On the issue at hand, I think it squarely is part of the “new strand” that I’d mentioned above (the Muslim isn’t “unmarked” here, but neither is the Hindu for that matter; one might usefully think about it under the sign of the “metropolitan” (who imagined himself de-racinated) encountering the permanently “ethnic”, but that’s a different issue, although an increasingly common one in Bollywood) — and in fact the representations are a lot more sophisticated than in the director’s previous film, Rang de Basanti…

  39. @ Qalandar – am curious what you made of Delhi-6 (really enjoyed your review of the music, btw!), and how it fits into this new strand you mentioned?

  40. Re: “I didn’t mean to say that older films weren’t stereotypical in their portrayals of Muslims but only that they weren’t characterised by negative stereotypes. In general films of this period tended to typecast roles that relied on their ethnicity or religion as markers but not in a crass negative way which we see today.”

    Viewed in that way then I will say that the current scenario offers a lot more hope than it did 7-10 years. The crass negativity (as opposed to what I was talking about, problematic stereotyping) has for the most part not been visible for the last few years…

    Aside: Muslims actually have it better than some others. Dalits, for instance, are characterized by an utter absence from Hindi cinematic representations (Rekha in Ganga ki Saugandh; Devika Rani in Achoot Kanya; and Madhumati; are the only instances I can think of in 70+ years — all are women. Heck Kailash Kher (who campaigns for the BSP, btw) is the only Dalit Bollywood celebrity I can think of)).

  41. Not very many stars shill for the BJP: only a few has-beens like Shatrugan Sinha, Vinod Khanna, and Dharmendra among the men, and Juhi Chawla and Hema Malini among the women. Despite the party’s desperate attempts years ago to woo amitabh, the Bachchan clan has resolutely stuck to the Samajwadi Party (Amitabh publicly snubbed then-PM Vajpayee by bailing on his book launch, leaving a prominently empty seat next to the PM in the subsequent TV coverage; Aishwariya Rai-Bachchan even campaigned for Samajwadi ally Badruddin Nizami’s largely Muslim party in the Assam assembly elections); and even in the midst of the post-Mumbai attack atmosphere with tensions running high, Aamir Khan came out with a blog post that didn’t just blame all politicians as was pretty common at the time, but made it a point to mention that the BJP was worse than the Congress.

    Re: “Unlike many other countries, the movie industry does not seem to be a source of political liberalism or tolerance. With some exceptions of course.”

    This is not a fair statement; in most countries, the movie industry is only a source of personal liberalism/tolerance, not necessarily of political liberalism — the same holds true in Bollywood too (in Hollywood, for instance, safe subjects such as gay rights, Holocaust, etc., will be tackled; but very very few had anything to say about (e.g.) the war in Iraq until it started going badly, and it became the conventional wisdom). There is simply no evidence that Bollywood has a worse record than a Hollywood in this respect, especially when one factors in the greater nastiness of Indian politicians (and hence the correspondingly greater vulnerability of Indian actors).

  42. LOL, you give me hope and then you snatch it away!

    I didn’t mean to say that older films weren’t stereotypical in their portrayals of Muslims but only that they weren’t characterised by negative stereotypes. In general films of this period tended to typecast roles that relied on their ethnicity or religion as markers but not in a crass negative way which we see today. I still remember seeing “Hindustan Ki Kasam” (the Raj Kumar version) which was remarkable for the way that the Indo-Pak rivalry was seen almost as a family quarrel without the communalisation of the nationalisms involved. while within the bounds of mainstream Indian nationalism there was no easily demonisation of the enemy as the perfidious Muslim which we see in today’s war films. The last ‘war’ movie I saw was one whose name I forget but which had the hero as a paramilitary officer see action in several different setting from the jungles of the north-east, against Tamil separatists in the South, internal policing in some village and finally the LoC in Kashmir. In EVERY single case the opposing side were cast as some sort of semi-demonic entitiy, inhuman killing machines or dastardly terrorists.

    Of course many films that could be characterised as “Muslim” films were period films like Mughal-e-Azam, Anarkali and Razia Sultan or had many Muslim aspects like Pakeezah. I think your description of Chaudvin Ka Chand is somewhat harsh since that was the general attitude of Hindi cinema to most aspects of ‘traditional life’ Hindu or Muslim which tended to be idealised a lot. But I am biased because I really like Guru Dutt.

    It was possible for Muslims to have a ‘normalised’ role as you say in some of the films; the sidekick Sher Khan in “Zanjeer” or one of the two hero-theives in “Imman Dhamram”. There also was a lot of underlying Muslim imagery that underpinned many films from this period – one example is the good luck charm (786) the gangster brother is given by a Muslim dockworker he saved and which saves his life several times until he loses it and is fatally wounded in “Deewar”. Some notable films also had Muslim portrayed as the heroes, villains and heroines without much weight attached to their religion per se such as “Coolie” and there was of course the cheesy “Amar, Akbar, Anthony” variety that in classic Nehruvian fashion told us we could just get along if we overlooked our religious differences. BTW I realise most of these films are Amitabh Bachchan vehicles, this is not out of personal taste but simply because these were the films most popular growing up and hence inflicted upone me :)

    Yes, the example of Dilip Kumar speaks to the limits of acceptaility in those – for actors at least; Muslim actresses like Waheeda Rehman and Nargis didn’t face the same problem. This has changed for the better, though I can’t help but be depressed at the throngs of Bollywood stars eager to campaign for the BJP and to a lesser degree (and really not much better from a communal point of view) the Congress. Unlike many other countries, the movie industry does not seem to be a source of political liberalism or tolerance. With some exceptions of course.

  43. PS– I wouldn’t go so far as to say the “trend has been broken”, merely that an additional (and, from my perspective, welcome) strand has been added.

    PPS– I also wouldn’t necessarily agree that the old days were better. The stereotyping of the “Muslim social” film in the 1950s and 1960s (e.g. “Chaudhvin ka Chand”; “Mere Mehboob”), despite its celebration by many Urdu-speakers, was highly problematic in itself, transforming Muslim life into something that was always already “past” (and cloyingly so), in that even though these films were set in the present, they seemed like period pieces; perhaps we may say it was the timelessness of the ghetto. The fact that Yusuf Khan had to go around as Dilip Kumar during the period itself speaks volumes (on this, at least, the world has unquestionably changed for the better; not only would no Muslim actor dream of changing his name to a Hindu one today, but just about everyone knows that A.R. Rahman has himself converted from Hinduism).

    Aside: My mother tells me that during the 1960s there was a Pakistani actor who adopted a Hindu screen name even though he was Muslim, a tidbit I found fascinating. Can anyone corroborate?

  44. On this subject, I would highly recommend Black Friday, Kashyap’s adaptation of Mid-Day journalist Hasan Zaidi’s book on the 1993 Bombay blasts. The interesting thing in this film (apart from the fact that it is one of the best Hindi films of the decade) is that although in many ways it preserves the logic of the “psychotic” Muslim terrorist, the agents of the state are ALSO depicted as “psychotic”; especially in the portions set in Bombay (less so the ones in rampur; and least convincing of all are the portions set in Pakistan). My review:


  45. Qalandar – I haven’t seen any of Kashyap’s films except for No Smoking and Hanuman Returns, which obviously don’t really deal with any of these themes. I accept that he isn’t part of the mainstream Bollywood tradition but I haven’t seen anything to indicate he would handle this topic very differently – I could be wrong here.

    You are right, in that the 1990s were the absolute worst in this regard and that is when I largely gave up on Hindi cinema. The earlier decades especially the pre-1970 period were not bad and though mild, had more interesting representations of Muslims which weren’t so steeped in negative stereotypes.

    If this trend has been broken over the last few years, then it is a positive development and one which I hope continues.

  46. Re: “Imagine such a commercial movie (if you can imagine a commercial movie made in PK) that takes as its premise an out-right revolt against the state. Could the Baluchi nationalists project their narrative through celluloid? It isn’t the fact of creativity (I have read some amazing poetry recently on the Baluchi cause that I can share if peeps are interested) but that the state/capital apparatus can make space for such imaginations within the public realm…”

    One difference, though, is that Gulaal’s central premise is the revolt of a region that in fact one of the very pillars of “Indianness” — i.e. this is the setting of a political fable (a Kashmiri backdrop would be more analogous to your Baluchi example). Indeed, this makes Gulaal all the more daring, because what Kashyap is putting into play is not “the other” but the untenability of “the normal”. Haven’t had a chance to check the film out yet, but it seems to me that Kashyap’s target here is very much the fascists who seek to advance a radical agenda under the guise of a “restoration.” A Pakistani analogue to this would be a film channeling the situation in the Swat valley, not something like the Baluchi movement…

  47. If anything, Gulaal seems to me to be trying to channel Dostovesky’s “Demons”.

    Re: “…it reflects very much conservative Hindu biases; wasn’t always like this but it has got much worse over the last 20-30 years.”

    One would need to draw a distinction here: the absolute nadir was reached during the later 1990s and early part of this decade. Over the last 5-7 years, however, there has been a marked difference in tone, however, most notably in the emergence of the “unmarked” Muslim (i.e. a character like any other, except that he happens to be Muslim) — in contrast to the earlier stock figures of: (1) the evil jihadi; (2) his hyper-nationalistic twin, typically a military or police figure; (3) the frail, kindly old man, marked by his religiosity.

  48. Chan’ad, thank you for this. I was marginally aware of some of the materials but this is very informative. Perhaps, I can request a guest post?

  49. Although the Pakistani state doesn’t condone or permit it, Baloch nationalists have been making movies and music videos for quite some time. It’s become a whole industry called “inqilabi” music/film. Go to any DVD/CD store in Karachi’s Lyari or Lea Market and you will see it on display (some stuff is kept behind the counter and has to be asked for). With the internet now there’s no way to stop it. Most of the stuff is filmed and recorded in Pakistan without too much trouble from the authorities (though many of the artists have been harassed, arrested, and gone “missing” from time to time).

    This guerilla film, Zindan, valourizing Baloch separatism was a big hit in Baloch circles:

    And a few hit songs :
    Azeem Baloch – Inquilab zindabad

    Mir Ahmed Baloch – Chunt Nazar

    Hafeez Baloch – Man bageeban

    And I made a short agitprop documentary interviewing one of the singers last year:

  50. well.. frankly i make it a point not to agree with sweeping generalisations that conrad has made, so i will stick to my principle on that.

    I may have been overly harsh, but this is how many of us view of our cinema and it is hardly a novel or original criticism. There is a broad literature on this that examines a lot the landmark Bollywood films, from Mughal-Azam, through to Sholay onwards. I think one of the best discussions can be found in Ashis Nandy’s edited volumes “The Secret Politics of Our Desires”. Of course you don’t have to agree with this anaylsis but lets not pretend it is somehow an unheard or not oft-remarked upon a feature of Bollywood cinema.

  51. well.. frankly i make it a point not to agree with sweeping generalisations that conrad has made, so i will stick to my principle on that.

    But, the music is totally mindblowing. Have been listening to them on a loop since they were released about two weeks ago. been bugging everybody i know to listen to them. All the songs and the lyrics are superlative.

    And have u heard this one – with the lyrics delving into bush foreign policy. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M6N7sKTcnjA&feature=related. Piyush Mishra is my latest god.

  52. Song is good but poetry goes by fast. Have to listen couple of times. Who is the poet by the way? Mr shabana Azmi

  53. Dont’ get your hopes up; Indian popular cinema as articulated by Bollywood is really hopelessly communal in its understanding of Muslims and the figure of the ‘Muslim’; it reflects very much conservative Hindu biases; wasn’t always like this but it has got much worse over the last 20-30 years.

    That article on Chattisgarh makes painful reading; most of the time the metropolitcan ‘security experts’ and bureacrats have no idea of what is actually happening on the ground. The presence of the state at the grassroots level is very minimal and where it exists it is very corrupt and exploitative – which unfortunately is the face of the state from the ‘worm’s eye’ point of view.

Comments are closed.