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Globalism and Indian Nationalism

Rang De Basanti may appear a "patriotic" film but it also has a covert discourse privileging causes, which far from being "pan-national" express instead the preoccupations of a specific class, who are convinced that it is they who constitute the nation.

Globalism and Indian Nationalism

Rang De Basanti may appear a “patriotic” film but it also has a covert discourse privileging causes, which far from being “pan-national” express instead the preoccupations of a specific class, who are convinced that it is they who

constitute the nation.

M K RAGHAVENDRA

I
ndian popular cinema is an exciting subject for study because of the constituency it commands. Popular cinema is not merely about “expression” or “entertainment”; economic factors make it necessary for each film to not only capture the imagination of the spectator but also address him/her in a pertinent way. Popular cinema must therefore be attentive to dominant discourses in the public space. With this recognition has emerged a considerable body of critical work that seeks to locate the ideological perspectives of the mainstream Hindi film. When it is possible (conversely) to read social or ideological discourses in cinema, the success of the particular film (rather than its “merit”) becomes the compelling reason for its scrutiny. Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Rang De Basanti is the latest phenomenon in Indian cinema and its success – both with audiences and the press – induces us to study it closely and offer an interpretation that goes beyond its explicit meaning.

Rang De Basanti has been is a runaway hit but its success appears to have been perhaps greater in the metropolitan cities (and with non-residents) than in the hinterland/rural areas because it seems to be positioned in this way.1 At the outset, it should perhaps be said that today’s mainstream Hindi film is hardly “all-India” in its address. If social researchers seek evidence of the divide between the growing cities and suburban/rural India, they need only visit the towns of the Hindi belt. The films favoured in Jhansi or Meerut are less the “shining India” variety than the violent, “B category” kind that might well have been from the 1980s – still replete with gangsters and feudal overlords, films acknowledging regional or caste conflict without surrendering it to nationalism.

Notwithstanding the martyrdom of its protagonists, Rang De Basanti is, in my view, too much of a “feel good” film to be accepted in regions not in sync with the optimism of the big cities.

Rang De Basanti is “patriotic”, as much of mainstream cinema tends to be today, although it is also a youth film as most other “patriotic” films are not. Film theorists have noted the role of mainstream cinema in nurturing nationalism but the shape taken by nationalism has varied in different periods. In the 1950s “nationalism” was largely about the encounter with modernity and the city (emblem of the Nehruvian modern) proliferated as a motif. Later films often showcased the nation’s heritage and its available scenic extravagance has been seen as an appeal to national pride to space as is then, nationally shared, as “both an emblem and an eraser of difference”.2 While nationalism was downplayed in certain periods, like in the 1970s, especially when mainstream cinema tended to be preoccupied with the conflict between classes, the present period of patriotism may have begun in the early to mid-1990s after the economic measures of the Congress government announcing the conclusion of Nehruvian socialism, also putting an end to the conflict between rich and poor, long the staple of the Hindi film. This needs more investigation but one ruse by which social conflict within the nation can be disclaimed is by pushing discord to its borders, that is, in effect reverting back to patriotism. If conflict is pushed back to the “border” in historical time, the natural adversaries are the British and if it is pushed to the border in space, the adversary becomes Pakistan.

Superficially, Rang De Basanti is a “patriotic” film extolling commitment to the “national” cause but it has a covert discourse privileging causes that, far from being “pan-national” betoken the preoccupations of specific classes convinced that they are the nation. The film begins with an English girl Sue (Alice Patten) being inspired by her grandfather’s journal to make a film about Bhagat Singh and his comrades in India, who courageously went to their deaths in defence of the nationalist cause.

Before going on to describe the rest of the film, I should perhaps say a few words about its portrayal of the British. The British, in Indian patriotic cinema, have come a long way since 1942: A Love Story (1995) and the favoured portrayal is to have a well-meaning representative (as also in Mangal Pandey) admiring the Indian nationalists even as he performs his duty as servant of the Raj. In Rang De Basanti the British play two different roles through Sue and her grandfather, a jailor in British India. Implicated in colonialism and its excesses but unwillingly, the grandfather is still the objective participant who records “the truth” and whose account therefore justifies the veneration heaped upon the Indian nation. British officers did maintain journals but the grandfather’s is uncharacteristically euphoric in its endorsement of the Indian cause and therefore serves Rang De Basanti’s patriotism rather than history.3

The west has been represented often in mainstream Indian cinema through white characters, although not always with approval. In the years when Indira Gandhi was leaning towards the Soviet Bloc, for instance, the white smuggler flying temple idols out of the country tended to symbolise the west.4 The English officer in 1942: A Love Storystill remained a loathsome figure but in the new millennium, the former colonialists have abruptly become acceptable to patriotic cinema. If Sue’s grandfather was still a colonialist, Sue herself bears no relationship to the race of colonisers. She is perhaps from the global west and, by making her an agent of Indian nationalism, the film is indicating that nationalism and globalism are not incompatible. This appears in contrast to the prediction of globalisation pundits5 who felt that rather than lead to a unified “global state”, the result of the increasing intensity of contact and communication between the nation states and other agencies would be to heighten attempts to draw boundaries between the home country and the others. By this token, Sue’s love for the male protagonist remaining unconsummated is

Economic and Political Weekly April 22, 2006 an articulation of the inviolability of the national boundary.

Returning to Rang De Basanti, Sue is met at Delhi airport by Sonia and, through her, meets the male protagonists of the film. There are four of them initially – DJ (Aamir Khan) who is a Sikh, Karan whose father is an arms contractor, Aslam and Sukhi. Another of Sonia’s friends – who later becomes engaged to her – is Ajay Rathod, a flight lieutenant in the air force. Sue now busies herself looking for a cast to play the revolutionaries and it is some time before she realises that Sonia’s friends are tailor-made for the roles. The four are, however, a happy-go-lucky lot and hardly fit to play revolutionaries. To make matters worse, they have an adversary in Lakshman Pandey (Atul Kulkarni), an ardent Hindu nationalist who disapproves of their flippant ways. Still, Sue persuades the protagonists to play parts in her film and infuses them with the idealism of those they will be playing. She still needs someone to play the key role of Ram Prasad Bismil and itis LakshmanPandey who demonstrates that he has the spirit.

Representing the Nation

The film hits upon a clever way of showing the progressive transformation of the young protagonists when it alternates between the film Sue is going to make (the protagonists playing their parts) and the present in which they are themselves. This strategy also helps the film to assert that one can be as radically patriotic today as the young revolutionaries were in their time and show that the protagonists are no less laudable for what they eventually do. To cut a long story short, a moral crisis occurs when Ajay Rathod’s MIG crashes and there is little doubt that the “faulty Russian spares” are responsible for the debacle but the minister insists on Ajay’s incompetence, bringing discredit to the dead boy. The protagonists stage a protest but Ajay’s mother (Waheeda Rehman) is assaulted so badly that she goes into a coma. The young protagonists now decide that the only way out is to assassinate the defence minister. In the end, the five die heroically but not before they reveal that one of them, Karan, has just killed his own father, an arms contractor. Sue, who has not participated in the assassination, is in deep distress at the death of her five idealist friends but the struggle will nonetheless continue.

Rang De Basanti has been called “reformist” and compared to Shantaram’s Duniya Na Mane and Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin.6 Rang De Basanti, it can be said broadly, is about corruption although that hardly describes its real concerns. What I think needs more attention is the deliberate location of this “corruption” in the political class. The figure of the corrupt politician is not new to Hindi cinema; for instance, in Ram Gopal Verma’s Satya (1999) the protagonist liquidates the political boss. Still, Rang De Basanti makes a significant departure from this convention inasmuch as the politician’s personal acts play no part in the narrative

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Economic and Political Weekly April 22, 2006

action (as they do in Satya). The politician in Rang De Basanti is not culpable for any individual misdeeds but he is still guilty because he acts the way politicians are believed to. If the politician is made the “villain” of the film on such grounds, it is not the defence minister per se who is indicted but his class. The “reform” proposed by the film then appears the elimination of the political class because this class is directly responsible for the ills plaguing the nation. What more convenient emblem for the nation is there besides the military and what handier way of representing “national ills” than its betrayal by politics?

Taken literally, the “reform” proposed by Rang De Basanti is absurd but we need to look more closely because the message can also be read symbolically/ covertly. Ever since the liberalisation measures of 1991-92, the state has been withdrawing from spheres where it was once actively engaged. Even functions like power and water distribution, once entirely within the ambit of its activities, are moving progressively into the private domain and there is clamour from the industry for more private participation. Complete withdrawal by the state, I suggest, implies the “removal” of politics from the public space because politics is (in a sense) the means by which the state is made accountable to the public. The liquidation of the politician in Rang De Basanti may then simply be a dramatic (and allegorical) way of representing this “removal”.

As earlier mentioned, the film seems to address audiences in the major cities, specifically, and the reason was not only because the male protagonists are from Delhi but also because Sue (“representative of the global west”) connects so directly with them. The metropolitan cities are the spaces in which global trends most visibly manifest themselves and global lifestyles are most imitated. Sue’s influence upon the male protagonists will perhaps mean the most there. I suggest that the antipathy drummed up by the film for politicians and their ilk is specifically the refrain of the upwardly mobile classes from the major cities who are impatient with the way politics hinders “progress”.

Politics in India is a contaminated realm, it must be admitted, but it is still the only means by which democracy works. This has not received much attention but every act of withdrawal by the state is also a step by which the electorate is made to relinquish its claims upon politics. The remark may be contested but the upwardly mobile urban classes are those with the least use for politics, which is perhaps why they are notoriously indifferent to elections. Officialdom is more accessible to them; the English press, the TV channels give them more than their due and this means their grievances get (relatively) easy redressal – even as the rest must rely upon the political class for their representation. One cannot claim that the political class represents the multitude effectively but to propose the “removal” of politics is to declare that those outside the upwardly mobile bracket need no advocacy.

Child of Nationalism

What Rang De Basanti does is to make a connection between Indian nationalism and the global west while undermining the much more obvious relationship between nationalism and politics – Indian politics is the child of Indian nationalism after all. Here, it is significant that Rang De Basanti is positioned as a youth film with the youthfulness of the protagonists deliberately compared to the youthfulness of Bhagat Singh and his associates. A recurring motif in the youth film is generational conflict – the break with patriarchy. Youth films like Bobby (1972), Ek Duuje Ke Liye (1981) and Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988) were about generational conflict and they also implied the interrogation of the present and/or tradition. QSQT, for instance, questioned ‘kshatriya’ ethics and the notion of family honour. There is less generational conflict in Rang De Basanti but the single important fatherson relationship in it still concludes with Karan killing his father, the defence minister’s associate in the quagmire of corruption.

Rang De Basanti is therefore curiously poised. It proposes the “removal” of politics and that can be interpreted as breaking with the political past – for which purpose it employs the conventions of the youth film. On the other hand, the film apparently deifies another aspect of the past by invoking the young revolutionaries. This seems like a contradiction but one still resolvable through the recognition that it is not the historical Bhagat Singh the film is summoning as much as an empty icon that can be used to any purpose for which it is enlisted – even to support the assertion that Indian nationalism is best sustained by the global west. More revealing however, is the implication here about why the global west may actually sustain Indian nationalism. A view often advanced is that the nation is a kind of “imagined community”,7 its possibility depending upon the development of the book, the novel, the newspaper and (in India especially) cinema. While nationalism is ostensibly a sentiment shared by the nation’s citizens, it is naïve to assert that all citizens are equal “stakeholders” in the nation or that the sentiment is restricted to them. Why should the global west sustain Indian nationalism – when it is apparently not a stakeholder in the Indian nation – is then a question that remains to be answered.

EPW

Email: mkragh@bgl.vsnl.net.in

Notes

1 According to trade assessments the film has not worked in the non-metro centres, Shubra Gupta, ‘Colour of Success’, Business Line, February 10, 2006.

2 One such film is apparently Dev Anand’s Guide (1965). See Sumita S Chakravarty, National Identity in Indian Popular Cinema, 1947-87, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1996, p 48.

3 Contrary to the grandfather’s journal, such “objective” accounts, under the guise of reflecting upon personal experiences, actually furthered the colonial discourse. See Ranajit Guha, The Prose of Counter-Insurgency, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Selected Subaltern Studies, Oxford University Press, New York, 1988, pp 45-86.

4 Beatrix Pfleiderer, ‘An Emprical Study of Urban and Semi-Urban Audience Reaction to Hindi Films’, from Beatrix Pfleiderer and Lothar Lutze (eds), The Hindi Film: Agent and Re-agent of Cultural Change, Manohar Publications, Delhi, 1985, p 127. Apart from the crackdown on smuggling in the period and the enactment of a special law (COFEPOSA), Pfleiderer suggests that smuggling is associated with “western behaviour” because smugglers cross the boundaries between east and west.

5 Mike Featherstone, ‘Localism, Globalism, Cultural Identity’, from Rob Wilson, Wimal Dissanayake (eds), Global Local: Cultural Production and the Transnational Imaginary, Duke University Press, Durham, 1996, p 60.

6 Subhash K Jha, ‘The ABC of Revolutionary Films’, Deccan Herald, February 26, 2006.

7 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London, Verso, 1983.

Economic and Political Weekly April 22, 2006

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