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Cover Story

No rebels, no causes

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The 'hero' in Hindi films displays markedly villainous tendencies

Once upon a time in Indian cinema, there were those who asked the right questions: what are you smiling for, you fool, in this wretched country? But in a new system with eroding legitimacy and desperate for respectability, conformity is the credo - fit in or pan out.

In happier times, even as a more inclusive India was euphoric about its tryst with destiny and civil society was mesmerised by the political elite's promise of 'wiping every tear from every eye', movie-makers from Mumbai refused to be seduced by the rhetoric. Instead, in a series of films like Awara, Do Bigha Zamin, Boot Polish, Shree 420, Mother India and Pyaasa, they showcased how the forgotten and the dispossessed lived and died, confronting society's masters with the profound question, "Jinhe naaz hai Hind par voh kahan hain?" The 'villain' was the system and its caretakers.

Today, the ruling elite of a deeply divisive and fractured India appears in desperate need of shoring up its fast eroding legitimacy. Thus, the Ideological State Apparatus (ISA) comes into play. Cinema which can be subversive is equally effective in manufacturing consent. In a complete reversal, the cinema of the last two decades has acted as a bulwark against any attack on the establishment. It is not that earlier films were genuinely radical. Their rebellion was diversionary, never focusing on the fundamental contradictions of the system. Yet, at least they articulated the angst of subalterns. The villains against whom Amitabh Bachchan's 'angry young man' spewed venom were politicians, police, the judiciary, all in collusion with corrupt businessmen and mafia dons.

In the 1990s, the 'angry young man' persona was still there, but the imperatives of a changed environ ensured the goalposts were no longer the same. Since the system was inviolable, there later came a proliferation of inane, 'comic' films such as Welcome, Singh is Kinng and Houseful, spiced-up 'revenge' dramas like Wanted and politically correct dons, as in Sarkar and Once Upon A Time In Mumbai. In contemporary cinema, social fault lines have to be located not within the system but elsewhere. And India, like Pakistan, is lucky to have another as a perennial 'other'. The agenda is simple, as contemporary Hindi films show. Attack the root cause - Pakistan-sponsored terror - and all our woes shall vanish. Literally.

Consider how the villain has been redefined. In the 1993 film Khalnayak, we are told, "Khalnayak ko bannane wale videshi taqat hain. " (The villain is the creation of a foreign power. ) And these insidious 'foreign powers' can do this because "Hamare yahan gaddar rehte hain, aur un gaddaron ka faida videshi taqat to uthayenge. " (There are traitors in our country and it is these traitors that the foreign power exploits. ) This kind of logic, redolent with 'hints', reaches its jingoistic culmination in 2001 with Gadar, one of the biggest box office hits of all time. In fact, during the last two decades, starting from Roja in 1992 till My Name is Khan in 2010, in film after film, irrespective of genre, the recurring image of the Muslim is that of a terrorist. There is such an overkill of 'Muslims in terror movies' that in common consciousness Islam and terrorism overlap. The merging of myth and movie is facilitated through the process of framing the terrorist in a singularly religious idiom. It is his 'Muslim-ness ' - the mandatory shalwar-kurta, the beard, reading the namaz - which is fore-grounded. At the other extreme, there are suave, urbane, executive types who are even more vicious, as portrayals in Fanaa, New York and Kurbaan have shown. So, like the devil, beware the Muslim who may take any form.

To be politically correct, this 'bad Muslim' is juxtaposed against the 'good Muslim', a righteous, patriotic soul who either liquidates the former or shows him the right path by sermonising on the true meaning of Islam. Even when there is only the 'good Muslim' as the central character in a film (as in My Name is Khan), he must throughout the film keep proving, rather like Javed Akhtar and his fellow members of 'Muslims for Secular Democracy', that he is not a terrorist.

Along with suspicion, there is another, more insidious villain today - the quintessential notion of free-spirited love, a favourite of Hindi cinema in happier times. Replicating contemporary khap-speak, supposedly romantic films, including Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge and Kuchh Kuchh Hota Hai, have centrally privileged the honour of the Great Indian Family over the feelings of individual lovers. New cinematic lover boys are wimps, willing to abandon their love interest rather than confront a dictatorial patriarch or do anything that threatens the traditional familial structure.

The sanctity of the family, like that of the larger system, is now non-negotiable. Their upholders, even if they are mass murderers - as in the protagonist of the Kamal Hasan-starrer Hindustani, or that of Baazigar, who kills his own girlfriend in order to avenge his family - are heroic. The hero/villain dichotomy has become meaningless. Not only is love dispensable but in today's times it is downright dangerous, as viewers are repeatedly told in Jism, Aitraaz and Love, Sex aur Dhokha. Is it any wonder then that terror and hate are the only credos by which we live now?

(The writer teaches Political Science at Allahabad University and has published extensively on Hindi cinema)

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