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Saturday, September 30, 2023

Sharing an old article which was published in Sunday Observer and Times of India, more than twenty five, thirty years ago. Video cassette recorders were quite the rage in those days as this article reminds me.
Revenge Now Reason Later
The office going creature, a sub-variety of the species Homo Sapiens,is seriously disjointed during long vacations. His biological clock, attuned as it is to the office- lunch- home- office syndrome becomes seriously flawed, once this routine is interrupted for any significant periods of time. He falls into a time warp where time seems to have been eternally dilated. Condemned to sit it out he keeps re-examining his watch, looking for signs of disrepair. By training and temperament, he becomes accustomed to spending the best part of his day working in the office which consists of creating more work for everyone around up and down. The emptiness in his life can be peopled only with files, endless palaver and gossip about matters concerning this activity. Leisure is something he has not learned to cope with. No wonder extension of service is so much coveted for its own sake in government circles.
Thanks to my children, who are keen video buffs, I was obliged to sit through two full-length Hindi films recently. The films were so similar in theme and content that all I have retained about the viewings is an undifferentiated . impression of blood and gore ,and a gloomy feeling that society is somehow coming unhinged.
Inddrajeet and Pratikar, the two films in question, had rape and revenge ( as the wages of the above act) as their theme. Rape and murder are not unfortunate calamities that affect the even tenor of life in these films. They are the normal common, workaday activities of young men who have nothing else to do by way of a vocation.
The norms of a civilized society and the appurtenances of the law-enforcing machinery are depicted on screen only to emphasize that they have become totally effete and irrelevant. In fact, the two films depict the police as accomplices, even active perpetrators of crime.
Cinematically, we have traveled far from the days when the cop chased the criminals and the heroine, and the audience empathized with every bit of his adventures. In a curious reversal of roles it is the police who must also be vanquished in order to ensure that the wheels of retributive justice travel full circle. The established apparatus of the law can no longer be relied upon to secure justice.
In Indrajeet the action proper begins only after the hero, Amitabh Bachchan, has hung up his gloves after a long and distinguished service in the police force. Impatient with colleagues who connive with evil doers, he also invites the hostility of a powerful politician criminal combine. Along the way he acquires an orphan whom he has brought up as his own daughter.
Indrajeet’s past deeds-trying to fight crime et al haunt his present. The gangster police combine abet the rape and murder of his daughter and also the killing of his son-in-law. Indrajeet’s effort to secure justice are bound to fail because of the obvious-police indifference. He then sets about clinically and methodically eliminating the assailants. In the last scene with upraised hands, he remonstrates on the propriety and ethical validity of his deeds with god himself and God himself appears to be on a sticky wicket.
In Pratikar the foster-mother-teacher (Rakhee), demands that her foster son, Krishna (Anil Kapoor) finish off the rapists and killer of her daughter. The long lost son of the heroine makes an appearance as a police officer in the latter part of the film. He becomes an impediment in the execution of the designs of Krishna as he would like the law to take its own course. But soon the police officer son throws away the fig leaf of pretence and enthusiastically joins in the murder and blood letting of the rapist murders. The not so subtle message is that the police, howsoever well intentioned, just cannot deliver the goods.
The standard finale to the films of former times, in which the police appeared in the last scene to collect the debris and escort the criminals to the doghouse has also been dispensed with. Are we to presume that society no longer believes in the efficacy, utility or validity of the legal system?
The police of course has been the butt of many a joke. Inefficiency occasional deviations from sobriety and a marked tendency to have their palms greased were accepted and well recognized stereotypes. But relief and redressal were still obtainable from the force at some level or the other. And if things got a bit too tangled the dependable and incorruptible CBI chap could be relied upon to make a dramatic entry and flash his I-card just when it seemed that all was lost. The audience could leave the theater satisfied and reassured at the affirmation of the victory of good over evil the law above the lawless.
It is this familiar sense of the ultimate victory of the forces of righteousness that seems to have dissolved over the years. With brutal and inexorable logic these films demonstrate the inadequacy of the legal method. The overdose of violence in intent in gestures and in deeds has a curious nihilistic tinge. The ethical dilemma is resolved, if at all, in favour of untrammeled violence.
These exaggerated themes of revenge and reparation have been with me ever since I saw the two films and I have been turning them repeatedly in my mind seeking the springs of their motivation; investigating the source of their visceral appeal on the masses; trying to piece together the logic of vendetta.
Are the films unrealistic and grossly exaggerated examples of ritual violence or do they in fact, reflect what is taking place all around as? After all art-even such an unashamedly escapist art form as commercial cinema-must draw its sustenance its themes and experiential content from life. The continued success of such films at the box office does indicated a strong measure of audience support. This has dangerous implication. As John Ruskin once remarked “Tell me what you like and I’ll tell you what you are”
One can, indeed visualize many scenarios where macho male posturing and senseless violence on the silver screen melts into the real thing mass killing of innocent railway passengers, pilgrims or down-town shoppers. To by standers, they may appear as acts of senseless insane violence but somewhere, some group or the other is bound to claim responsibility for these killings, dubbing it as an act of revenge against injustice.
Streets reverberate with the call to the faithful to vindicate and avenge a wrong done unto them in historical time . Every available square inch of wall space in cities and villages is taken up with scrawling vows to build the temple at the designated place. Policemen and their relatives are bumped off for alleged excesses; Sikhs perish in pogroms calculated to display the adoration felt by followers for a slain leader. All of us are on a tight schedule, duty bound to seek revenge or reparation, singly or in groups irrespective of consequences, uncritically embracing the most fantastic causes and grievances. Revenge now, reason later!
The motives for revenge are just about as logical or as full of contradictions as the patchwork themes in commercial cinema. The idea is to have some action-in cinema, with an eye on the box office; in public life, for personal influence, for office for vote banks. The leading characters in cinema and politics could do a trade off of their activities. The public man weaves a spell, mesmerizes and converts followers by his stratagems, by his oratory, by his capacity to manipulate the atavistic fears of insecurity by inflaming irrational desires and passions he has you by the throat. The thespian achieves the same result by his spellbinding performance. He forces you into a voluntary suspension of disbelief.
While the performance lasts, both appear as convincing and as real. Is that why men from the world of cinema are increasingly being welcomed in the sphere of politics and are finding themselves perfectly at home? The whole world is a stage after all and the sphere of public affairs is just another locale for another magnum opus.
At a time when revenge is the leitmotif of all our preoccupations, in cinema as in life, it is difficult to believe that only half a century ago, in this country, lived a man who shook the mightiest of empires about him it was said: “Scarce will the generations to come believe that such a man walked in flesh and blood”. The memory of his deeds, his vision of a deeply compassionate society ricochet on our minds preoccupied with that single obsession revenge in Ayodhya, in Rudrapur, in Srinagar or Sangrur. The whole nation is in the throes of this all consuming frenzy, each one of us has to enact his own little part in a complicated plot which is just a variation on the same theme.
Meanwhile in New Delhi, dignitaries visit Rajghat to pay their tributes to the man who was the apostle of nonviolence under the shadow of menacing Black Cat commandos with their weapons on the ready. It is just as well that Gandhi’s three monkeys are stone deaf, purblind and preternaturally dumb.

Thursday, September 28, 2023

Helpless before history

Helpless Before History !
Let me tell you upfront: I am not a right winger. I am not a left winger either. I may also add that I am not a Muslim hater nor am I a Hindu baiter. I was not at the hot gates of Ayodhaya wielding crow bars and axes, nor was I leading the lynch mob clamouring for 'death to Kamlesh Tewari ' or rejoicing at the beheading of Kanhaiya Lal. The grief was mine, on all those occasions. So was the opprobrium for saying so. Painfully aware that to be ideologically uncertain in times of single truth constituencies is to court the enmity of both groups. I have all but given up joining debates where front-line fighters in the mental wars of our times are slugging it out. The gesture would be quixotic. We are a society which now lives by an old ditty that I came across during the Black Panther movement , “They say in Harlem Country / There are no neutrals here / Whose side are you on? / Whose side are you on?”
This question was put to me a couple of days back for the umpteenth time, whose side am I on ? I am on the side of my country. Till yesterday to be an Indian in India was the end of the matter. But unfortunately the times are out of joint ,that country has ceased to exist. Now you have to be the right kind of Indian. You have to love the authorised icons in a certain measure and you have to hate with the right degree of intensity objects and people who are not of the right kind. Between loving and hating there is no half way house. But hate does not go unrequited and in recent times there has been a frightening and competitive expansion of trained ignorance and malicious feelings . A sudden spread of impenetrable moral and spiritual darkness has engulfed us all, where you can no longer say right from wrong, but the pall of darkness provides hate mongers on both sides the cover to do their thing. They are inflicting by turns , one wound at a time , an wound for an wound , drawing blood for blood. I dodge the draft . That leaves me – and many other people like me – shipwrecked, stranded, marooned . Stateless refugees, castaways, drifting aimlessly, unwelcome at either shores because we cannot show our papers of allegiance. We are the new boat people.
PS :There is a context for these musings which I will share some other time