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Spare Gandhi

Lage Raho Munnabhai is a soap opera that spoofed Gandhi to work out rather elite middle class anxieties, writes Dipankar Gupta.

india Updated: Oct 31, 2006 02:43 IST

I know several entrepreneurs in the capital who booked chunks of the theatre where Lage Raho Munnabhai (LRM) was showing for their employees. Does this mean that Delhi’s banal class is becoming Gandhian? How can this be?

Since LRM was released in the Capital there has been no let up in murders, road rage, killing of elderly couples and domestic violence. Why, even a bull went wild grievously injuring at least one person at the time when this movie was playing in a hall near you.

So I decided to do a bit of spot research. Interestingly I found that while the middle class upwards were enthusiastic, to the point of getting sentimental, about LRM, Delhi’s underclass was divided on this issue.

Some thought it was fun, others were unmoved, but very few gave the Gandhian bit a high five. The Gandhian part, however, is what appealed the most to the better-off sections in the capital.

Apart from the usual tale of class divide, the bigger questions really are whether the Gandhian gloss given to the film is accurate and did the middle classes see Gandhi in the film in as illusory a form as did our protagonist, Munnabhai?

Then I saw the film and the penny dropped! Of course, the film was not about Mahatma Gandhi, but about middle class India desperately seeking an alternative to a failed civil society but without having to dirty their hands.

Nowhere in the film did Munnabhai and company take on the system or the authorities. The corrupt politicians were nowhere to be seen. Indeed, the problem situations in the film, for which the ghost of Gandhi famously materialised to vapourise soon after, were all personal ones with no societal fallout.

Father reconciling with son, neighbour with neighbour, and lover with lover. All very private affairs and all so middle class.

Where was Gandhi’s message to change the system through non-violence? Indeed, where was the oppressive system itself? The secret is out. It is this lack of a larger picture that questions the basis of middle class banality that appealed most to the metro elite.

The film’s prescription is accordingly most pleasing. Workers please do not get violent and form unions, think of chatting up your bosses instead. Likewise, if you have problems with the real estate mafia, enlist a radio station and shame that one person by sending a forest of flowers. But never go to the police.

Now, I am no longer surprised at the success of LRM. This film was not about Gandhi and the problems he addressed. This was a soap opera that spoofed Gandhi to work out rather elite middle class anxieties.

So if Delhi’s prosperous classes don’t mind sending their underlings to this cinema, it is because they find LRM’s message really comforting. Would they do the same for Rang de Basanti which advocated direct action against the system, beginning with patriarchal oppression?

Gandhi inspired many to lead selfless lives fighting for causes that were larger than their own. As Gandhi has now truly become a metaphor, it was only a matter of time till somebody privatised his message and made him a cuddly middle class item that one can handily gift one’s boss, one’s dad and the mafia don.

Members of the underclass labour under issues that need systemic redressing. Their private peeves become collective issues very quickly. Is that why LRM left so many of them feeling somewhat cold and ambivalent?

(Dipankar Gupta is a sociologist at JNU)