Editorial / Reinventing tradition
The quiet man
This above all / To each his own grief
People / Sunny Deol
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL / REINVENTING TRADITION 
 
 
 
 
Fifty-two years make India a young republic. It is fitting therefore that it faces a crisis of identity rather than the problems of middle age. In 1950, India proclaimed its identity with great clarity. The new republic would be committed to secularism, peace and to self-reliance in economic affairs. Most of these ideals are now under threat or have become irrelevant. The irrelevance is obvious in the notion of economic self-reliance. In an era of economic globalization, such an idea makes little or no sense even to the most patriotic of souls. More serious are the questions that have arisen about India’s commitment to peace and secularism.

India’s borders have never been particularly safe and stable. Through the late 20th century and the first months of the present century, tension with Pakistan along the Jammu and Kashmir border has steadily mounted. There has been a major confrontation in Kargil which threatened to become a prolonged war, but skirmishes along the border have become everyday affairs. These incidents are clearly related to the support that Pakistan provides directly and morally to terrorism in Kashmir. On December 13, this violence made the Indian Parliament its target. The immediate consequence of this was an escalation of tension and troop movement on both sides of the border. An eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation acts as a strong corrosive to India’s commitment to peace. This threat is aggravated by the spread of violence within the country. This violence is a spin-off of the bigger problem of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism and the growth of militancy among Islamic fundamentalist groups. The eradication of this will require strong counter-insurgency measures. India can no longer be perceived as a soft state merely because it upholds democratic rights. A balance between democracy and a clear-headed no nonsense attitude towards violence directed at the state and the citizens will give to India an adult identity.

India is a self-proclaimed secular republic. But secularism in India has never aspired to a complete separation of the state from religion. Rather, secularism in India has come to mean religious tolerance and the protection of minorities. This fabric of secularism is fraying at the margins. This is a result of Hindutva and of Islamic fundamentalism. Neither ideology — and their development is symbiotic — has any place in civilized society. A further dimension complicating the problem is the abuse of some Muslim shrines and educational institutions by militants. The security of the republic is coming into conflict with the idea of protecting minorities, one talisman of Indian secularism.

It is true that none of these threats are strong enough to destroy what is fundamental to the republic — democracy. But they represent challenges. The republic must look into its own identity and if necessary reinvent itself. It was formed with a certain amount of starry-eyed idealism. That idealism has yielded to pragmatism. But this cannot be the basis of a strong identity. Identities are always subject to change and even to negotiation. Is India open to the challenge of introspection and self-criticism which alone can help it mature and make the passage to adulthood?    


 
 
THE QUIET MAN 
 
 
BY AMIT CHAUDHURI
 
 
The old Minerva theatre, converted into the Chaplin: this was where a crowd of invitees gathered on the evening of January 9. They had come, of course, to see a film. But, first, the felicitations, the speeches, the presentation of bouquets to the film directors and actresses and singers of the past, seated on the dais, some looming upright in their chairs, another frail but perky, another’s hair rejuvenated with dye. Each had some reminiscence to relate about Bimal Roy, whose film, Udayer Pathe, made in 1944, would be shown later. About one thing each was certain; all had this memory in common: that Bimal Roy was a quiet man. He did not speak much; he kept to himself. I look at his photographs again in the light of these remarks; he is smoking a cigarette, or smiling faintly at the camera. Here is a quiet man, I think, with a large family, working in a profession that requires constant interaction with several people. I am struck by how quietude can express itself through a lifetime of work.

Later, the dais was cleared, and the half-forgotten, briefly celebrated figures, cradling their bouquets, scattered into the hall. As the lights dimmed, I saw an outline, bouquet in hand, receding towards the seats at the back; then a familiar white light flooded the screen. The hall itself was filled with a curious mix of people. I myself had distributed cards amongst my relatives; my wife had distributed some amongst hers. Then there were the many people I didn’t know, probably with members of their family; Bimal Roy “buffs”; the ageing actors and singers of yore (some of them had gone home).

Then there were the younger people, including a friend from Oxford who’d leave Calcutta in two days, and his brother and sister-in-law. Behind me sat a few members of my wife’s family; my two uncles, who had seen Udayer Pathe in their youth, sat elsewhere, at the back. It was like being in a limbo, sitting in that dark hall — somewhere between familial memory and private expectation, between an improvised public event and the accumulated bittersweetnesses of our lives.

Within the first ten minutes, it was evident we were watching an extraordinary film. What must it be like for a contemporary audience to see a classic for the first time? Of course, not all classics are recognized for what they are when they are first shown; some years before Udayer Pathe, Jean Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game), perhaps the most influential film, was savaged by critics in France. That evening on January 9, there were gasps of surprise and appreciation in the dark, as the audience praised the film, even as it progressed, noisily amongst themselves.

The chatter was not the usual commentary of people who have watched a hit film twenty four times, and know all the lines by heart; these rather intrusive exclamations came from an audience that had been taken unawares. That is why watching Udayer Pathe that evening was a deeply contemporary experience, rather than a retrospective one. Of course, Udayer Pathe is a landmark film in the history of Indian cinema; but its time, we sensed, had finally come. After it was over, we stood in the foyer and in the dimly lit street, talking, as if we had seen a great film on its opening night.

The story is simple, even symmetrical, enough. On the one hand, we have a rich young man, played by Devi Mukherjee, and his beautiful, accomplished sister (the actress is Binota Ray). On the other hand, we have a sort of inverse mirror image of these two: the poor, idealistic writer, Radhamohan Bhattacharya, and his sister, played by Rekha Mallik. Binota Roy and Rekha Mallik are friends, and the latter, upon her friend’s insistence, visits her mansion to attend an upper-class social gathering. Here, she is insulted, and wrongly accused of theft by a family member. Although Binota Ray demonstrates the accusation is a false one, Rekha Mallik returns, humiliated, to her brother.

The brother, Radhamohan Bhattacharya, is unemployed, and, as it happens, appears for an interview the following day; his interviewer is Devi Mukherjee. The interview is a strange, if a hugely entertaining, one: the idealist writer answers the interviewer’s questions in epigrams excoriating the rich, while the discomfited Mukherjee, an admirer of Radhamohan’s journalism, gently upbraids him for being too serious. So begins a banter between the two that lasts for about three quarters of the film, in which Radhamohan’s semi-serious pronouncements on the urban rich (which so delighted the audience that night; the brilliant screenplay is Roy’s) is constantly subverted or deflected by Devi Mukherjee, like two contradictory voices in an interior monologue.

This film does many things excellently, too many to mention in this short article; among them is a dramatization of the self’s inward struggle within the parameters of possibilities thrown up by urban life. The villain, Devi Mukherjee, and the hero, Radhamohan Bhattacharya — although they do not look exactly alike — mirror each other remarkably in their broader physical dimensions: both young, tall, moustached, and regular-featured. So, while the narrative keeps hammering home to us the irreconcilable difference between rich and poor, powerful and powerless, the camera, by presenting us with the illusion of the twinned protagonist and adversary, seems to show us the single chameleon self from different angles.

Radhamohan gets the job; he begins to write Devi Mukherjee’s pieces — fine speeches, for which the latter is praised. The employer invites the employee to his mansion, and introduces him to his magnificent library; here, on his frequent interludes, Radhamohan runs into his employer’s sister again and again. The first meetings are prickly; Radhamohan has not quite forgiven Binota Ray for that early humiliation involving his sister; and Binota Ray cannot quite abide Radhamohan’s spiritual superciliousness, his “plain living, high thinking” ways. Yet this is precisely what draws her to Radhamohan; and they fall in love, even before they’ve said so in so many words. The film, in all its themes, is structured around polarities and attraction; like a composition in European music, it contains within it both counterpoint and harmony. Indeed, the film itself is orchestrated and paced like a piece of music, while, interestingly, there is hardly any background score.

In the course of their conversations, Radhamohan tells Devi Mukherjee he has written a novel; he gives him the manuscript to read. But it is Binota who discovers it; she reads it and is much moved; meanwhile, Mukherjee has promised to publish it. Publish it he does, but in his own name. The book is a great success. Radhamohan relinquishes his job; he takes up the cause of the workers in his former employer’s factory; in this, he is joined by Binota Ray. Mukherjee plots to have him silenced; and he divides the workers against each other. As Radhamohan decides to leave Calcutta permanently, Binota Ray rebels against her family and leaves home; she joins Radhamohan as he walks on the Grand Trunk Road from Calcutta to Asansol.

I do not know if Guru Dutt saw Udayer Pathe, or Humrahi, its Hindi version, but, certainly, Roy’s film presages Dutt’s Pyaasa. Both films constitute key moments in Indian cinema; both films are exacerbating and unsettling meditations on the work of art in the marketplace, and the loss of identity of the creator. In Udayer Pathe, this loss of identity is enacted literally; Devi Mukherjee publishes Radhamohan’s novel in his own name. Dutt takes this crucial conceit in Pyaasa, and makes it central to the work; the protagonist, a poet, is put into a madhouse, then presumed dead; his enemies publish his book of poems — which becomes a bestseller — and then celebrate his work “posthumously”.

In both films, the protagonists withdraw from the duplicity of the marketplace with a woman by their side; and the films culminate, alike, in a shot, taken from the back, of the man and the woman walking down a road into the distance. In the earlier film, that shot is a reminder, obviously, of the film’s title and its dream — the road to a new dawn. In Pyaasa, the ending was inserted later as a compromise; but it may also be a reference to the same dream dreamt earlier. Certainly, Bimal Roy, the quiet man, might have used his silence to strategically withdraw from the marketplace he himself had to work in, and in which he had to place his creations; Dutt’s withdrawal, as we know, was, eventually, radical and final.

These questions and preoccupations continue to haunt us today. So do the characters, played so superlatively by the actors I have named. After Binota Ray reads Radhamohan’s manuscript, she, upon being asked to comment on it, says (I don’t recall the exact words): “But tell me, is a character like this one plausible — an upper-class woman who is found late at night in a slum?” Radhamohan replies: “My concern was not whether she was plausible or not. I wished the reader to ask, ‘What if such a character should exist?’” It is a fair question, and the one legitimate question that a work of the imagination — a story, a play, a film — can raise: not, “Might such characters exist?” but, “What if such characters were to exist?” It is a question that, sitting in the hall that January evening, we found we were asking ourselves.

   

 
 
THIS ABOVE ALL / TO EACH HIS OWN GRIEF 
 
 
BY KHUSHWANT SINGH
 
 
There are two schools of thought on the subject of death — eastern and western. Orientals believe that the best way of coping with death of a loved one like a parent, spouse or child is to cry your heart out till you are drained of tears. The custom, vaine (chants of lament), and breast-beating were regarded as cathartic. All this is followed by chautha, chaaleesveen, bhog, antim-ardas or a prayer meeting in memory of the departed soul. Friends are expected to call in the belief that grief shared is grief halved. Westerners believe that grief is a private matter and should not be exhibited in public. Shedding tears is unmanly. One should put up a stoic front and get over the loss by oneself.

I had to cope with the problem myself very recently. Being an agnostic I could not find solace in religious ritual. Being essentially a loner, I discouraged friends and relations coming to condole with me on the death of my wife. Most of them ignored my request. I found this commiserating with me an emotional trauma. I spent the first night alone sitting in my chair in the dark. At times I broke down. But soon recovered my composure. A couple of days later I resumed my usual routine of work from dawn to dusk. That took my mind off the stark reality of having to live alone in an empty home for the rest of my days. But friends persisted on calling. And upsetting my equilibrium. So I packed myself off to Goa to be by myself. I am not sure if it will work out.

Everyone has to evolve his or her own formula of coping with grief. People who believe in god turn to him. The words of the 34th Psalm are pertinent: “The Lord is close to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” Jesus Christ was not ashamed of weeping before everyone when he lost a friend: “When Jesus saw Many weeping and the Jews who had come along with him also weeping, he was deeply marred in spirit and troubled: ‘Where have you laid him?’ he asked. ‘Come and see Lord,’ they replied. Jesus wept. Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” (John 11:33:38)

As one would expect, Osho Rajnish made light of the darkest of subjects including ways of coping with grief. In his collection of sermons, Walking in Zen, Sitting in Zen, he cities the case of an Italian, Perelli, and his unusual method of getting over the shock of losing his wife: “At the funeral of his wife Perelli made a terrible scene, so terrible and heart-rending, in fact, that friends had to forcibly restrain him from jumping into the grave and being buried with his beloved Maria. Then, still overcome with grief, he was taken home in the rented limousine and immediately went into complete seclusion.

“A week passed and nothing was heard of him. Finally, worried about the poor guy, his late wife’s brother went to the house. After ringing the doorbell for ten minutes — and still worried — the brother-in-law jimmied the front door, went upstairs and found his dead sister’s husband busily banging the maid.

“The bedroom was a mess — empty champagne bottles every where.

“This is terrible, Perelli!” the brother-in-law declared in shocked tones. “Your dead wife, my sister, has been dead only a week and you’re doing this! You’re doing this!”

“So busy in the saddle was Perelli that he managed only to turn his head. “How do I know what I’m doing?” he said, “I got such grief! I got such grief!”

Gods never fail

If you have run out of luck, lost everything you owned and are reluctant to work for your living, there is a formula for survival in comfort. All you have to do is find a big peepal tree (for good reasons, botanists call it Focus religiosa) and set up your abode under it. Smear its trunk with safron paste, put a grey stone against it, a garland or two of marigold flowers and a platter of copper with a few coins in it to encourage others. Then blow a conchshell and ring bells to announce the advent of a new incarnation of one of the gods of the Hindu pantheon. You will be in good business: plenty of money in offerings, no accounting for it to anyone, no taxes. And much respect from the community. This can only happen in India.

This is the theme of Namita Gokhale’s latest novel, Gods, Graves and Grandmother. In her story, a family of kothawalis (prostitutes), once living in a large haveli and patronized by rich zamindars, merchants and even the sahib log, loses all its money and finds itself on the road to destitution. Ammi is too old to be of service to her clients but still has a melodious voice to sing bhajans.

Her daughter, who has all that a courtesan needs to have, suddenly loses all her hair and elopes with a fellow who does not mind having a bald mistress. Her daughter is still a gudia (doll), too young to be deflowered. So the destitute grandmother and granddaughter arrive in Delhi, find a hospitable peepal tree, set up a makeshift temple and a hut to sleep in. In no time business picks up. An ample-bosomed flower seller, three leper beggars at a respectable distance, a shastriji who can chant appropriate mantras in Sanskrit and, most important, a pehelwan (wrestler) who makes a handsome living collecting raakhi (protection money) from shopkeepers and helps landlords to evict recalcitrant tenants and tenants to grab landlords’ property at a big fee. The slab of stone becomes the centrepiece of a huge marble temple. When Ammi dies, she is buried as a saint. This adds to the sanctity and income of the temple. Gudiya grows into a beautiful girl. She is not happy studying in a school run by a kindly Parsi lady who tries to adopt her as her daughter. She fantasizes becoming a filmstar and assumes the name, Pooja, the daughter of a wealthy Thakur zamindar. Then falls in love with a handsome but good-for-nothing clarinet player, a member of a band leading wedding processions. Decked in colourful pseudo-military uniform, riding a white horse, he appears to her as Prince Charming, god Kalki of the future. She is only too willing to lose her virginity to him when he takes her behind a cluster of bushes. Instead of Gudiya, it is Kalki who disappears to try his luck in Bollywood.

Gods, Graves and Grandmother is a satire on today’s India. Namita Gokhale has skilfully strung different episodes like beads of a rosary to portray the seamier side of Indian life and morality.

Seek and ye shall find

A spiritual seeker meets a guru. The guru advises him: “Go out in the rain and raise your arms. That will bring you a revelation.”

Next day the man is back. He tells the guru: “When I followed your advice, water flowed down my neck. I felt like an idiot.” The guru replies, “For the first day that’s quite a revelation.”

(Contributed by: Rajnesh Shimla)

State of the problem

Banta opened a big departmental store in Ranchi. One of his customers, Banke Bihari Lall, complained that he got a wrong computerized bill in the name of Banke Jharkhandi Lall. When Banta asked his manager, Santa, about this mistake, Santa replied, “Sir, it is the fault of the computer. Earlier Ranchi was a part of Bihar but now it is in Jharkhand. And I gave instructions to the computer that wherever the world Bihar comes, it may automatically convert it into Jharkhand. That is why Banke Bihari Lall was converted to Banke Jharkhandi Lall.

(Contributed by J.P. Singh Kaka, Bhopal)

   

 
 
PEOPLE / SUNNY DEOL 
 
 
 
 

Terror for terror

The catchphrase “Doodh mangoge to kheer denge, Kashmir mangoge to cheer denge” (If you want milk we’ll give you cream, but if you ask for Kashmir, we’ll rip you apart) in Maa Tujhe Salaam — Sunny Deol’s latest film released yesterday — is frighteningly jingoistic. But at a time when the armies of India and Pakistan are locked in an eyeball to eyeball confrontation on the border, the battle cry might find many takers at the ticket counters. On the silver screen, you can trust Deol to save Kashmir from the vicious terrorists who have filtered in from the other side of the fence. Like Rambo, he can do it all alone for his country, his motherland.

These days, Deol can perform any miracle of muscle on celluloid. And, pulp patriotism is his steroid. Deol is larger-than-life. Angry, avenging, macho and indomitable, no other film star in Mumbai carries such an aura of invincibility. Nobody laughed when he took on the might of an entire unit of the Pakistan army in Gadar: Ek Prem Katha. Instead, the audience watched in surcharged wonder as he vanquished the enemy and rode home triumphant with his wife. Flushed with success, he now stands at the top of the star heap with a a clutch of films which craftily, and often dangerously, use patriotism to send populist messages.

Patriotism has proved to be profitable for the 40-plus Deol. Each bullet fired from his gun, every knock-out punch delivered by his fists, every obscenity hurled at the enemy has paid rich dividends for the elder son of yesteryear star Dharmendra.

Contrary to popular perception, it is he, and not the holy trinity of Khans — Shah Rukh, Salman and Aamir — or Hrithik Roshan, who commands the highest pay packet in the Mumbai film industry. Industry sources reveal his fee stands at a staggering Rs 3.5 crore per movie. No surprise considering Gadar was the biggest grosser of 2001.

Over the years, popular Hindi cinema has mirrored the mood of the nation. In the 50s and 60s, mainstream Hindi cinema’s nationalism — an action-packed Lalkar or a war-weary Haqeeqat notwithstanding — was primarily about the tasks of nation building. Remember Naya Daur or Hum Hindustani? Films like Manoj Kumar’s Upkaar translated Lal Bahadur Shastri’s slogan, “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan”, on the silver screen. His ‘Bharat’ was a creation of this brand of patriotism. As times changed, so did the idea of patriotism.

Deol is the blunt and pugnacious face of Bollywood’s new patriotism. This is patriotism seen through the barrel of a gun. This is the narrow, blinkered patriotism of ‘us’ and ‘them’. This is patriotism at its one-dimensional worst where words of reason are considered a waste of time and bazookas looked at as the only solution provider. In Indian, a hit action flick released last year, Deol played the role of deputy commissioner of police Raj Shekhar Azad (note the similarity in the name with that of freedom fighter Chandrashekhar Azad), who wipes out the evil Lashkar-e-Jehadi, no questions asked, using a secret strike force of his own. In Ma Tujhe Salaam, the protagonist Major Pratap Singh will do anything for the sake of his country. At a time when many have sulked over the government’s unwillingness to cross the Line of Control, the hero in Gadar goes deep into Pakistan and comes back a winner.

The roots of Deol’s larger-than-life image as a one-man demolition army goes back to the 1990 hit, Ghayal. In his earlier action hits such as Arjun, the five feet, nine inches tall actor was like a quiet, simmering volcano. “Santoshi brought the hot lava tumbling out,” says film distributor Sanjay Mehta. In Ghayal, as a disturbed young man looking for his elder brother, Deol raved and ranted at the impotent system. He did not have a good voice like Amitabh Bachchan or Raj Kumar but Bollywood discovered that few could match Deol in lung power and screen presence. The patriotic twist came with Border in 1997.

Yet, all of this almost didn’t happen. Before Gadar was released in 2001, Deol was almost given up as a has-been by Bollywood. He had failed to deliver a single hit in the previous three years.

Then, in a changed political climate, Gadar happened. And the world changed for Deol. “At present, he is the only Mumbai hero who can fight an entire battalion and appear credible to the masses,” says trade pundit Komal Nahta. In a time of war and terrorism, Deol’s on-screen bravado appears to act as a catharsis for the audience. By doing everything, and that too single-handedly, that many want the government to do, he acts as a wish-granter for the masses.

Deol has now established himself as a stable long distance runner who is both the darling of the masses and the distributors. In fact, there is much more to come. He is now directing a film based on the life of freedom fighter Bhagat Singh. Brother Bobby Deol plays the title role while Sunny himself will play Chandrashekhar Azad. Patriotism is a great thing to cash in on.

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Bitten by the screen bug

Reality bites n Sir — The report, “Kidnap-kids’ mission Musharraf” (Jan 21), reads like a script straight out of Bollywood. That Pinku and Rinku were naive enough to believe they could translate Sunny Deol’s screen capers in Gadar into real life, is to state the obvious. What is shocking about the incident and moreover, gives the lie to the naivete theory, is the deviousness the two teenagers displayed — luring the boy to the outskirts of the village and then killing him so that he couldn’t identify his assailants later. Considering the gravity of their offence, naivete is no excuse for criminality.

Yours faithfully,
Arindam Hazra, Patna

Power byplay

Sir — The stand-off between the West Bengal State Electricity Board and CESC seems about to end with the latter promising to pay off all current dues as well as part of the arrears by February 7 (“Power talks herald respite”, Jan 23). It is obvious that the CESC top brass wields a great deal of clout over the state’s political leadership. Or, they could not have obtained yet another extension although this is not the first time CESC has defaulted on payments. The CESC must honour its commitment this time, given WBSEB’s threat to invoke section 4A of the Indian Electricity Act, 1910, and warning it would take over certain areas now under CESC jurisdiction.

There could be another reason why CESC was being pressurized by the WBSEB — to effect an increase in tariff. Interestingly, the company’s top executives have even tried to justify the tariff increase by saying that it would be used to fund expansion programmes. But why must the taxpayer bear the cost of such innovations?

Yours faithfully,
S.K. Chanda, Calcutta

Sir — The agreement between WBSEB and CESC is a relief to the people of West Bengal, inconvenienced by frequent power cuts in the past few days. The power situation in the state, which had improved in the last few years, had deteriorated rapidly in recent times. Even though WBSEB has lifted restrictions on CESC, it is only temporary and will mean very little unless CESC is able to affect a major turnaround. It is a pity that despite paying their bills on time the people of West Bengal were being held to ransom.

Yours faithfully,
Dhaneswar Banerjee, Bolpur

Sir — Nothing — not the inconvenience of patients in hospitals, of students studying for examinations — shook the indifference of politicians in the state to the power crisis. But remarkably, the game of cricket brought about a ceasefire between SEB and CESC, if only for 24 hours. One is stru- ck by the clout wielded by the Board of Control for Cricket in India which brought about this truce.

Yours faithfully,

N.R. Venkatesh, Calcutta

Peace trials

Sir — History is witness to the fact that peace talks have seldom succeeded in resolving conflicts between nations. It is only when one of the rival countries defeats the other in a war and then shows magnanimity towards it, is there any likelihood of peace. This was true of World War II, when peace returned to Europe only after both Germany and Japan were defeated and had to surrender.

By the same logic, peace will return to west Asia only after Israel takes proactive action to defeat Palestine and then helps to build its economy. In the same vein, peace might return to south Asia only after India defeats Pakistan.

Yours faithfully,
N.B. Grant, Pune

Sir — In the light of recent events in Afghanistan and the continued persecution of Arabs in Palestine, I am appalled at the apathy of other countries — epecially Germany and France — to the unilateral aggression of the United States of America and Israel. By not protesting, they are guilty of abetting the crimes committed by these two nations.

Yours faithfully,
Avinash Vishwakarma, Rourkela

Letters to the editor should be sent to:

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