Perhaps the best line in a Hindi movie this year comes from Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai. In the backdrop to an item number celebrating a political plan to raze a slum, evict its inhabitants, and build in its place an International Business Park or IBP, the acronym reappears as the initial letters of the corporate developer’s motto: India Bana Pardes.
The phrase doesn’t function now as it would have in the 1990s, when it might conceivably have served as a rabble-rousing Shiv Sainik slogan designed to foment violence against communities deemed non-Indian. In 2012, India Bana Pardes is instead an aspirational ideal. Jai Pragati! is the memorable chant of one of the film’s political satraps – and as Shanghai’s item number makes clear, Pragati is a synonym for Bana Pardes, a process by which Indian cities emulate shining foreign metropolises and foreigners worship at the altar of shining Indian style (the dance routine is performed by a firang starlet in glittering desi garb). The brilliance of Shanghai is how it allows another, more disturbing meaning of India Bana Pardes to puncture the item number’s tinsel vision of development. For the phrase translates not just as “India Becoming Foreign” but also as “India Becoming Strange” or “India Becoming Estranged.”
In the stampede to build a shining future, the film suggests, India is becoming increasingly alienated from itself.
In this series of three articles, I want to think about how several Hindi blockbuster movies of the last year – Don 2, Agneepath, Rockstar – might each unwittingly shed light on the troubling complexities of India Bana Pardes. These movies are, on the surface, similar to films that I saw when I first came here 10 years ago, as a pardesi jo Indian ban raha tha. Like Company, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, and Dil Chahta Hai (to mention just three immensely popular films from a decade ago), the new blockbusters are genre movies about gangsters, father/son relations, and intercontinental desi romance. But they are also instructively different. In particular, the new crop of films suggests how, during a time of massive economic reconfiguration both here and abroad, Hindi cinema is subtly reimagining India’s relation to the world. And as a result of this larger global transformation, India is not only Becoming Foreign in ways that Bollywood for the most part celebrates. It is also Becoming Estranged from itself – from its pasts, from its presents, and from more socially just futures than those now being locked into place by the dubious dream of India Shining.
In Farhan Akhtar’s Don 2, we find a particularly interesting variation on India Bana Pardes. The film entails a reinvention of both the NRI movie genre and its main exponent, Shah Rukh Khan. From his character in Aditya Chopra’s Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) to his many parts in Karan Johar’s romantic films, Shah Rukh Khan has played the archetypal NRI who globe-trots across Switzerland, England, and the United States but whose desi heart beats for home.
Perhaps the most illustrative instance is his character Mohan in Ashutosh Gowariker’s film Swades (2004). Mohan has a successful career in the US, but over the course of the film he decides to return permanently to India. In no way is Swades assimilable to the rubric of India Bana Pardes; as its title suggests, the film’s somewhat simplistic nativist lesson is that the NRI’s true home is India.
But home is precisely what Don 2 refuses, or estranges. The film is variously subtitled “The Chase Continues” and “The King Is Back” – both of which suggest a continuity of sorts with its prequel Don, subtitled “The Chase Begins Again” and also starring King Khan. Yet if “The King Is Back,” he has returned in a radically different guise from the lovable swadesi that Khan had made his trademark even in the first Don, where he dreamed nostalgically (like Amitabh Bachchan in the original Don of 1976) of Khaike Paan Banaraswala. The new King is not just a physically different Khan, grungy and long-haired with a permanent sneer. He is now King of a different constituency, one that is only tenuously Indian – or Indian in a very different and estranged form. Unlike the prequel, this film moves restlessly across the globe without any sense of India as home. Don 2 is set in France, Thailand, Malaysia, and Switzerland; it features an almost exclusively desi cast, but the film never sets foot in India or even a surrogate such as the Little India of Kuala Lumpur that we glimpse in the first Don. Or, the film projects an Indian world in which India curiously no longer exists.
When we find out in Don 2 that the vice-president of the Deutsch Zentral Bank is Indian, Shah Rukh Khan boastfully quips: “Kyaa karein? Hum har jagah hain, sweetheart.” The line – which drew a loud cheer from the audience when I watched the film – is not just an acknowledgment of the West’s high-achieving Indian diaspora. It is symptomatic of a larger, aspirational fantasy that “we” Indians can become whatever we want, wherever we want. A more negative version of the fantasy is legible in Shah Rukh Khan’s other 2011 blockbuster, Ra.One. The film’s evil computer-game villain, named for India’s most famous mythological baddie, variously assumes the forms of a Japanese game designer, Arjun Rampal, and Kareena Kapoor as he moves unstoppably across the globe. Similarly, Shah Rukh Khan in Don 2 can, with the help of computer gimmickry, morph into a dapper tuxedo-wearing Hrithik Roshan after gliding from Malaysia to Switzerland; more importantly, he is able by the film’s end to make himself over as the kingpin of Europe, controlling the production and circulation of its currency.
This may be a diabolical power-grab. But it’s one that Don 2 invites its Indian spectators to enjoy. For at root, what the film trades in – and I use that verb deliberately – is a vision of India Bana Pardes modelled on the movements of global capital. According to this vision, Indians are embarked on an inexorable trajectory toward success because, like money, they can be transformed into absolutely anything and everything they wish as they move across international borders. There can be no India in Don 2, then, because in the film Indians as much as India have become pardes. According to its IBP vision, everyone is now an NRI, unrooted and constantly on the move as they accumulate bottomless wealth and power.
This IBP vision works bilaterally. In the age of that other Indian three-letter acronym beginning with “I” - the IPL – Indian money can also transform a Gayle-force Jamaican into a Bangalore Charger, or a Taylor-made New Zealander into a Delhi Daredevil. It can also buy the chart-topping American singer Akon’s voice for Chammak Challo. These are the new NRIs of Shining India (or should we call it Chammak India?). Don’t get me wrong: I love cheering for my fellow Kiwi and Dilliwala Ross Taylor, despite his recent form slump; I adore Chammak Challo, not least because of Akon’s uncanny ability to sing Kaisa sharmana aaja nach ke dikha de in flawless Hindi.
But ultimately, like Don’s scheme to take control of European currency, both Taylor’s and Akon’s presence on Indian cricket fields and in Hindi film soundtracks speaks to a fantasy of Indian capital’s global purchasing power. Or, more precisely, it speaks to a fantasy of Indianness as capital, capable of moving imperiously through the world’s blueways of monetary exchange, transforming itself into everything else and transforming everything else into itself. “IBP” here has become global Indian Buying Power.
But what does the seductive IBP fantasy of Don 2 and the IPL leave out? For one, it overlooks the inconvenient truth that the global mobility it dreams of is largely confined to those few Indians and Indian institutions with access to enormous wealth. For another, it disavows the even more inconvenient truth that it rides roughshod over the majority of Indians who are rooted in one location not through choice but through poverty. To the extent that they do migrate, the movements of the poor trace not the shining flows of global capital but the jarring dislocations of economic “development” – as Shanghai shows us so powerfully with its closing scene, when one of the slum inhabitants is enlisted to drive the bulldozer that will demolish his own shack.
In Swades, Shah Rukh Khan returns to India to help poor villagers gain access to electrical power. In his new Indian Buying Power avatar, however, he inhabits a world in which the poor – and poor India – no longer exist. Shah Rukh Khan the pardesi can quip that “hum har jagah hain”. But Shah Rukh Khan the
might recognise what Shanghai so powerfully shows: that the fantasy of India Bana Pardes all too easily aims a bulldozer at the vast majority of Indians who are excluded from that global “hum,” and for whom the only available script is “
hum kahin nahin hain
Next week: The Alpha Beta (Agneepath)
– The author is Professor of English at George Washington University in Washington DC, USA
From HT Brunch, September 9
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