Ways of seeing

Written by Shohini Ghosh | Published on: October 1, 2006
film popularising Gandhian values, Rang De Basanti has been blamed for legitimising vendetta through violence. "The film’s basic political prescription is scary," writes Kanti Bajpai, academic and principal of Doon School, in Outlook (February 20, 2006), "Young people are encouraged to mete out vigilante justice and then seek atonement through populist slogans and maverick explanations." Similarly, in an edit page article in the Hindustan Times (September 1, 2006), journalist Sagarika Ghosh writes, "Rang De Basanti is a cult film for today’s youth. A film that preaches disrespect, hedonism and historical forgetfulness while valorising murder is seen as the great protest film of our time." This allegation is not new and films with violent content frequently evoke this response.

Film studies in the last two decades, especially in the 1990s, revised and re-oriented the critical frameworks and categories under which film violence has been traditionally studied and understood. Research and scholarly work have dispelled the myth that films, however violent, can cause violence except in stray individuals who are already predisposed towards it. On the contrary, an interrogation of film violence can provide useful insights into the workings of contemporary society.

The spectator’s engagement with film texts or any other cultural form is complex and unpredictable. An engagement with the realm of representation does not, except in exceptional situations, translate directly into actions in the ‘real’ world. Take the last sequence of Prakash Jha’s pro-feminist film, Mrityudand, (1997) where the female protagonist (Madhuri Dixit) shoots the villain through the head as a large collective of women gather to bear witness and suppress evidence. Anyone remotely familiar with the plight of women in rural India will know that such a resolution is more likely to be imagined than lived. But for many spectators this ‘representational’ remedy may be empowering precisely because it is impossible to achieve in real life.

Kanti Bajpai also laments the film’s suggestion that "Indian Society is portrayed as perfectly good while the state is made to look hopelessly bad." It may be useful to recall that Rang De Basanti is by no means the first film to articulate disenchantment with the state. In fact, more than any other popular cultural form, Bombay films have consistently critiqued the decline of state machinery and the failure to deliver social justice. Whether or not such representations are desirable depends on one’s expectations about the role and purpose of cinema and on which side of privilege one stands. Let us take a quick look at Rang De Basanti’s architectural ancestors.

The post-1974 films of Amitabh Bachchan are articulations about the crises of the state. The rise of the angry young man coincided with, even anticipated, the declaration of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, independent India’s most oppressive experience of state repression. Not only does the state retreat from its promise of delivering justice and democratic rights, it unleashes terror on its citizens. From the mid-’70s onward, innumerable films have depicted how the judiciary fails to deliver justice, protecting instead those it ought to punish.

The films of the late ’80s and ’90s become more categorical about the failure of the state and its machinery. Representatives of the rule of law are shown to be directly complicit with corruption and criminality. With lawlessness spilling over into increasingly chaotic public spaces, notions of justice and revenge begin to collide. As state institutions crumble, vigilante figures, or those I call urban warriors, begin to function as surrogate law keepers.

In films such as Arjun (Rahul Rawail, 1985), Parinda (Vidhu Vinod Chopra, 1989), Ghayal (Raj Kumar Santoshi, 1990), Narasimha (N. Chandra, 1991), Yeshwant (Anil Matto, 1997), Satya (Ram Gopal Verma, 1998), Ghulam (Vikram Bhatt, 1998), Shool (E. Niwas, 1999), Vaastav (Mahesh Manjrekar, 1999), Takshak, (Govind Nihalani, 2000), Kurukshetra (Mahesh Manjrekar, 2000), Garv (Punit Issar, 2004) and Sehar (Kabir Kaushik, 2005), the urban experience is shown to evoke terror, insecurity and even madness.

In the 1990s the representational collapse of state institutions and the imploding of boundaries between law and lawlessness is complete. This ‘collapse’ becomes articulated particularly in the mid-’90s around the emergence of the mafia or gangster films that lay bare the intersections and overlaps between law keepers and lawbreakers, state and society, order and chaos. In the landscape of Bombay films, state and society cannot be separated. Perhaps for this reason, Rang De Basanti’s finale provides two assassinations each representing the state and civil society.

Cinema is a phantasmic site on which desires, aspirations, fears and anxieties can be played out. Within the cinematic space, imagination is paramount. Both Lage Raho Munna Bhai and Rang De Basanti address contemporary desires and anxieties, which accounts for their popular appeal. Neither however can be held responsible for either aggravating or diminishing violent acts. The complexities of spectatorial engagement becomes evident if we consider that there are many who have strongly identified with both films regardless of their seemingly divergent ideologies.

Notwithstanding the politics of violence or non-violence, both films envision certain ways of living and being. Both Lage Raho Munna Bhai and Rang De Basanti are texts primarily driven by men and male friendship. Munna Bhai is in love with Jhanvi but his primary companion is Circuit. In a world of collapsing certitudes and increasing uncertainty, the constancy of love and friendship between Munna and Circuit is no less attractive than Gandhigiri. Rang De Basanti has two significant female protagonists who initiate the film-within-the-film project that, in turn, acknowledges the historic role of Durga Bhabi. The narrative, however, belongs to the boys around whom the climax of the film is structured. To this end, the very last image of the film is significant. The boys are resurrected, as it were, in the vast and colourful expanse of the mustard fields. They watch approvingly as a young boy called Bhagat Singh plants a sapling so that a thousand mangoes may grow. We last see them drifting lyrically across the yellow flowers. Even death, it appears, cannot part them. The parable of love and loyalty explored through male bonding provides a poignant counterfoil to the darkness of the film’s theme of violence and vendetta. In both films a sense of community and reconciliation, fast declining in the anarchy and uncertainty of a rapidly globalising world, is found in the constancy of friendship. n

Archived from Communalism Combat, October 2006 Year 13    No.119, Cover Story