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Role Model

Babu in Bollywood

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Hey , do you still sing?” the question had rung out across a Mumbai coffee shop where Srivatsa Krishna was having a cuppa. And it came from a pal he hadn’t met in 25 years — since they parted as debating rivals in Delhi University in the late 80s in fact. In the interval, Krishna had gone on to become a senior IAS officer with impressive stints in Andhra Pradesh, as the faceless force driving Chandrababu Naidu’s cyber dreams and in Delhi’s Tis Hazari, as a magistrate who ordered some very unpopular demolition drives. And his debating friend had gone on to become one of Bollywood’s most promising indie filmmakers — Dibakar Banerjee. “Y-e-s ,” Krishna had replied tentatively to Banerjee’s abrupt query. “Will you sing for my film?” Banerjee shot back.

The filmmaker was looking for a voice to recite Vishnu Sahasranamam , the 1000 names of Vishnu, for his hero Abhay Deol’s Tamil Brahmin IAS officer, also named Krishnan, in his forthcoming film Shanghai. Deol plays an upright and uptight IAS officer posted in a Maharashtra town who is as much a stickler for red tape as he is for Brahminical rituals. The Sahasranamam was to go as a backgrounder to this. Banerjee had obviously remembered Krishna’s musical triumphs at DU competitions.

Krishna agreed and his recitation appears as a four-minute track on the film’s music album. He is a natural, with no formal training in music. The officer says one of the reasons he is on leave without pay from the government is to pursue the art more seriously. He is now learning both Carnatic and Hindustani music.

More importantly he became Banerjee’s reference point for the film’s character. “He wanted to understand the nuances of a Tamil Brahmin IAS officer, posted in North India's life, which sort of fitted me like a glove!” says Krishna.

Bollywood is not too fond of using bureaucrats as characters. Policemen, certainly; politicians, yes; ministers, those too. But babus probably seem too drab for the screen. They only pop up as heartless charcters who quote the rule book to give needy people grief.

“In general public perception about the IAS is at an all-time low. IAS officers are seen as lazy, corrupt, red-tape bound, politically servile - all of which is true, but for a minority in the Service,” says Krishna . Deol’s officer in the film is a man caught in a moral dilemma.

On long sabbatical from service, the bureaucrat is doing his PhD jointly from IIT Madras and IIM Bangalore on the role of PPPs in infrastructure building. But he had done enough turbulent stints — the Delhi demolitions had won him a lot of enemies — to know what it is like for personal beliefs and principles to clash with the imperturbable political and social order.

“In the IAS, about 40 per cent of the officers are personally honest and incorruptible but won’t take on the system, though they remain clean themselves; another 10 per cent will remain personally honest and fight a corrupt system, not allow people above or below them to make money. What I understand from Dibakar is that the movie is about a TamBram IAS officer, in category 1, in a dilemma whether to move into category 2 or not,” says Krishna.

Banerjee is a stickler for micro details. You can pin down his characters not just to their cities, but to their colonies and right down to their blocks and gallis . Check out the West Delhi retiree carping about being fed gas-inducing rajma at night in Khosla ka Ghosla. Watch the honeymooners making complete asses of themselves in Manali in Oye Lucky Oye. Or the kitsch interiors of a nouveau riche home in Love Sex aur Dhokha.

So when he puts Deol on screen as, of all things, a Tamil Brahmin bureaucrat, you can be sure that he would have a real life model in mind. After all this is not Delhi-born Banerjee’s turf. “Dibakar gave me a broad picture and asked me to tell him in general on the dilemmas faced by honest IAS officers, how they deal with it, the various leadership challenges etc,” says the officer.

Ten years out of active service, Krishna is able to critically analyse the pressures of being a bureaucrat. But by the end of this year he plans to return to the world the filmi Krishna inhabits.

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