Ways of seeing

Written by Shohini Ghosh | Published on: October 1, 2006
he would probably have advocated very different measures to curb corruption than his screen counterpart. In one sequence, for example, a retired pensioner strips down to his underwear to shame the corrupt official into giving him his cheque. "If he came to life today, as he does in the film," writes Duara, "he would approve of a strict enforcement of the law, including the arrest and detention of corrupt officials." In Hirani’s film, Gandhi is an amiable social reformer who preaches non-violence and honesty as a panacea for all ills. Divested of any complexity, Gandhi emerges as a loveable, apolitical pacifist who is unlikely to ruffle anyone’s feathers. But history tells us that Gandhi ruffled feathers to such an extent that he was assassinated by Hindu extremists.

I should add here that all filmmakers have a right to interpret public figures in the manner they choose as long as they do not present factual inaccuracies. Nor is there such a thing as ‘the’ true interpretation. Therefore, I am not so interested in interrogating the ‘truth’ of such an interpretation as trying to understand why certain interpretations become popular at certain moments in history. It is my suggestion that in Lage Raho Munna Bhai, Gandhi represents not a historical figure so much as an idea embodying contemporary society’s deep desire for redemption. In an anxious society ridden by caste, class, ethnic and communal conflicts, the film visualises a utopian world where the perpetrators of violence and corruption are magically transformed by the power of love. The desire for moral redemption (‘hriday parivartan’, as Circuit calls it) drives the narrative of the film. It is uncertain whether the Gandhi of later years, having failed to prevent the partition of India or the communal madness that claimed hundreds of lives on both sides, would have shared such a utopian vision of transforming the world.

But the film is by no means just a compendium of pious homilies. The humour in the film emerges from both remembering and forgetting Gandhi. When the satyagraha in front of Lucky Singh’s house lands Munna and Circuit in jail, they fantasise about the benefits accruing from walking the Gandhian path. They fantasise about their statues being erected in parks, their faces appearing on 500 rupee notes and their birthdays being declared a national holiday so long as it was not a dry day! The film is non-judgemental about those who have forgotten Gandhi because, the film seems to suggest, it is never too late to remember.

If Lage Raho Munna Bhai embodies a utopian desire for redemption, Rang De Basanti, despite its laughter, frivolity and bonhomie, is a dystopian parable about the impossibility of it. In a multiply layered narrative, historical reconstructions of the past punctuate narratives of the present. The boys who act as revolutionaries in the film embody the disillusion and cynicism of our times. In one of the early sequences, a group of Hindu activists led by Laxman Pandey attacks a party where DJ and his friends are dancing. Laxman accuses the revellers of corrupting Indian culture with western ideas. In the altercation that follows, Laxman calls Aslam a "Pakistani" thereby provoking DJ into a fight. When the police arrive, DJ settles the matter with a bribe. Earlier in the scene, Sukhi generously loans money to a friend and remarks that his father had money enough to rot. This one scene lays out the different registers of conflict that beset the lives of even the privileged classes in India. Unlike Munna Bhai who, despite being a gangster, has unbridled faith in the goodness of human beings, the boys in Rang De Basanti are sceptics. The actions that lead to the dark finale of the film are inspired not only by their deep empathy for the historical figures whose roles they portray but precipitated equally by a hopeless disillusion with the present. As DJ says, "Ik pair future mein te ik pair past mein rakh kar aaj par moot rahe (With one foot in the past and the other in the future, we are peeing on the present)."

Just as Lage Raho Munna Bhai’s popularity has been accompanied by stories about the