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Whose India is it anyway?

bollywood Updated: Aug 18, 2011 13:37 IST
Jonathan Gil Harris
Jonathan Gil Harris
Hindustan Times
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I first visited India in the summer of 2001. I’d fallen in love with an Indian; over the course of the next ten years, thanks to annual visits to Delhi and the south, I fell in love with India too. My relationship with the country has been in some ways typical of any long-term love affair. India has enchanted me, fed me, afforded me a home, taught me a new language; it has also occasionally made me ill. In loving it, I have had to adapt to its many peccadilloes. But adapting is no easy task in love, especially when the object of your affection is itself constantly changing.

My ten-year love affair with India has been book-ended by two blockbuster films produced by the same production house, Aamir Khan Productions: Lagaan (2001) and Delhi Belly (2011). The two films are in certain superficial ways similar. Both are well-made, highly enjoyable entertainments. Both depend in large part on the enormous charisma and bankability of the Aamir Khan “brand” (which includes the actor’s prominently displayed chest). And both tell powerful stories about India. Yet the two films are also radically different because the stories of India they tell are so very different.

Lagaan was the first Hindi film I saw in India. I had seen others in the US, but only on video in the private comfort of my own house. Nothing had prepared me for the thrill of being part of a large Indian movie audience. I saw Lagaan in July 2001, at the grand but somewhat dilapidated Chanakya cinema in Delhi. The Chanakya seated 1,080 people, though I suspect there were many more in the auditorium that day, crammed willy-nilly into its aisles, landings, and nooks. Tickets for the densely packed front stalls sold for a mere 30 rupees, but my partner and I opted for the sanctuary of the 80-rupee balcony seats. Even up there, the atmosphere felt reminiscent (as was only appropriate, given the film’s theme) of a sports game.

Unlike more restrained cinema audiences in the US, people talked loudly and incessantly throughout the film – to each other, to the characters on the screen. They applauded when Aamir Khan, showing off his well sculpted pectorals, made his first appearance. They hissed at the splendidly villainous, wax-mustachioed Captain Russell (Paul Blackthorne) when he challenged the Champaner villagers to a devil’s wager that, if lost, would result in double lagaan. They cheered and booed during the cricket game between Aamir Khan’s ragtag team and the local British officers’ side. And even though the game’s result was never really in doubt, pandemonium erupted in the 30-rupee stalls when Aamir Khan struck the winning six. I will never forget the sight of people in the stalls stamping and dancing for pure joy as the dastardly Captain Russell lost both the game and his wager. Lagaan impressed on me how the venue in which a film is screened is a crucial part of its story. The Chanakya cinema may have been located in well-off South Delhi. But its size and ticket prices were designed to accommodate a mixed audience, one consisting of people from many classes and communities. Lagaan was made to be screened in venues just like the Chanakya cinema. Aamir Khan’s victorious cricket team – comprised of Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Dalit, supported by men and women, young and old, maharajahs and commoners alike – symbolically mirrored its diverse audience.

Delhi BellyIt was a distorted mirror, of course. Who in the audience could match Aamir Khan’s sublime physique or his irresistibility to all the film’s female characters, both desi (Gracie Singh) and firangi (Rachel Shelley)? And for all the lip-service it paid to India’s diversity, Lagaan presented its non-Hindu characters as isolated individuals: its Muslim, Sikh, and Dalit cricketers did not have families, nor were they seen as part of larger communities. The only fleshed-out community in Lagaan was Hindu: the mandir was Champaner’s spiritual centre, and an entire song was devoted to Lord Krishna and Radha. But Lagaan’s story of India was, for all its omissions and biases, a fundamentally inclusive one. When Aamir Khan told us in the song Mitwa that "yeh dharti apni hai," his "apni" seemed to embrace every one of us in the auditorium – even a culture-shocked gora like me.

Fast forward 10 years. In the intervening time, the Chanakya cinema has closed and been demolished. Bollywood makes its profits increasingly in those air-conditioned pockets of exclusivity that we call multiplexes. There tickets are R300 or more; the cost of a movie mushrooms further when one factors in the vastly overpriced popcorn and soda available from the concession stands. There are no cheap front stalls for the poorer sort. As a result, multiplex audiences are more homogenous: overwhelmingly middle-class, often young and fashion-conscious, largely Anglophone. They are as noisy as the Chanakya cinema audience, but not because they are talking back to the characters or erupting in joyous dance. It’s because they are chattering loudly on their mobiles about today’s clothes purchase, tonight’s dinner reservation, or tomorrow’s business meeting. Importantly, multiplexes are often located in huge shopping malls. To reach your movie, you have to walk through a gauntlet of luxury stores selling expensive stuff you don’t really need. The siren call to retail therapy is hard to resist. So is the fantasy that India has somehow become entirely rich and clean: in the mall/multiplex, one does not have to set eyes on a beggar or even a chai-wallah, walk up urine-stained gallis, or deal – God forbid! – with the heat. This is the climate-controlled environment in and for which Bollywood tells its new stories of India.

Dhobi GhatHow has Aamir Khan Productions responded to the rise of the mall-multiplex? For 10 years, its brand insignia has been an elegant lower-case "a." But if the "a" of the company that produced Lagaan stood for the inclusive "apni" of Mitwa, the "a" of the Aamir Khan Productions that has made Delhi Belly stands for the exclusive "adult" of the Indian Censor Board’s rating system. Aamir Khan has made much of how he successfully lobbied for Delhi Belly to be awarded an A-rating. The film’s marketing campaign focused on its adult content, including its expletive-laden script and its scatological theme. Both were aptly summed up by the slogan "S#!T HAPPENS." And a minor scandal was generated by the double entendre of the song Bhaag DK Bose. Both slogan and scandal were artfully deployed to create the expectation that Delhi Belly would be a hip, risqué, bilingually irreverent movie. It wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea: instead, it would be a dangerous brew designed for a more knowing, cool, and cosmopolitan consumer. In other words, the film brilliantly targeted the exclusive niche audience of the mall-multiplex.

So it’s perhaps no surprise that, where Lagaan traded in the inclusive pronoun apni, Delhi Belly revels in the frisson of excluding an inferior tu. Just listen to the lyrics of its most memorable songs. In Bhaag DK Bose, we are told that Daddy mujhse bola/ Tu galati hai meri. And in Jaa Chudail, the singer complains that Tujhko kadar nahin / Yeh le dekh thenga mera. Is it too much of a stretch to see these vigorous rejections of the lowly tu as symptomatic of a will to exclusion that undergirds the entire institution of the mall-multiplex? Lagaan was a postcolonial film that dreamed of a united, pluralistic rural India. By contrast, Delhi Belly is a post-postcolonial film that dreams of a globally connected urban India. Yet the film half-recognises that this is a dream available only to a minority of Indians. The opening shot features a plane landing at the gleaming new Indira Gandhi International airport. The plane passes over the heads of three anonymous street urchins who gaze up at it. In that one image, we see the exclusionary world of the mall-multiplex in a nutshell: a cosmopolitan air-conditioned vessel soars above a rooted poverty that is distant from and invisible to it – that in a crucial sense doesn’t matter anymore.

There is no end of squalor in Delhi Belly, as Imran Khan and friends’ filthy Old Delhi flat and its dysfunctional toilet make clear. Despite appearances, this is not the dirt of poverty. It is an aestheticized cosmopolitan dirt, imported from American and British cinema – the gross-out movies of the Farrelly Brothers, the grimy London underworld flicks of Guy Ritchie, the toilet-diving fantasies of Danny Boyle. Yet Delhi Belly’s dirt is more than a sign of Indian multiplex culture throwing in its lot with global codes of cinematic cool. What is interesting is how the film makes these codes Indian. It does something similar with the Delhi Belly of its title. Traditionally the preserve of gora tourists, Delhi Belly has become something that a Dilli-wallah can succumb to and make his own – just like the hip English (or Hinglish) which the film’s main characters speak.

The cool India of Delhi Belly is one that repeatedly takes non-Hindi cultures and owns them as local fashion statements. Just look at Imran Khan’s T-shirts in the film. One boasts a slogan in Hindi next to a graphic design of Chinese rice and chopsticks; another pays homage to Rajnikant. Where Lagaan made cultural diversity the ground from which to battle oppression, Delhi Belly imagines diversity simply as an abundance of cool accoutrements. Old Delhi provides the film not with Muslim characters but with chadors that set up a series of (admittedly hysterical) running gags. Cool things – clothes, food, movies – are the lubricants of a fantasy world that belongs entirely to the mall-multiplex, one from which poverty, cultural difference, and social tension have been airbrushed out of existence.

This problem haunts Aamir Khan Productions’ other recent movies. Dhobi Ghat (2010) features two middle-class characters – an NRI investment banker turned filmmaker, a bohemian painter – each of whom becomes fascinated with a person one would rarely if ever encounter inside a mall: a dhobi and a poor Muslim woman. In Lagaan, a dhobi and a poor woman might have some agency. In the era of the mall-multiplex, however, they are simply objects of ethnographic curiosity.

But another of Aamir Khan Productions’ films underlines how, even as the mall-multiplex has changed the way its clientele imagines India, the problem of poverty refuses to go away. Plus ça change. Peepli Live (2010) satirises the problem of farmer suicides; like Dhobi Ghat, it features characters who never enter the world of the mall-multiplex. But the film also comments poignantly on the ways in which such people are excluded from the cosmopolitan India which the mall-multiplex promulgates. Natha (Omkar Das Manipuri), an impoverished farmer who has earned a fleeting media celebrity because of his promise to kill himself, absconds while news crews camped outside his hovel gleefully await his death. In the film’s final image, we glimpse him in the city, working with a construction gang who are building a flyover. That flyover is a powerful metaphor for how urban development seeks to push the underprivileged out of view so we can simply fly over them unobstructed – as we do in the mall-multiplex. Peepli Live’s final image is all the more powerful because it shows how the labour of the dispossessed has been enlisted to build the very machinery that performs their dispossession. In the process, it reminds us that those who are allowed to lay claim to “apni dharti” are getting ever fewer even as India’s malls are getting ever larger.

From HT Brunch, August 14

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