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Lage Raho Munnabhai: History as Farce

Some Gandhians appear to have given the nod to the film Lage Raho Munnabhai. Embedded as they are in the past, for them any approbation of Gandhi, even from an unlikely source such as Bollywood, gives comfort. This and the popular acclaim for the film raise some issues for examination, since the movie has some problematic elements to it.

Lage Raho Munnabhai:

History as Farce

Some Gandhians appear to have given the nod to the film Lage Raho Munnabhai. Embedded as they are in the past, for them any approbation of Gandhi, even from an unlikely source such as Bollywood, gives comfort. This and the popular acclaim for the film raise some issues for examination, since the movie has some

problematic elements to it.

S GANESH

T
he film Lage Raho Munnabhai is ostensibly on a Gandhian theme. It uses the dialect of the Mumbai underworld – ‘topori’ lingo. The message of the film is that truth wins over falsehood, and non-violent resistance over force. And they all live happily ever after. Gandhi appears on screen – more than cameo appearances – to provide the inspiration that makes this happen. Surely, such a message can only be considered as progressive. Gandhians appeared to give the nod at a recent event to commemorate the centenary year of the Satyagraha movement. At this event, the lead speaker exhorted government to exempt the tickets for the film from entertainment tax. The audience, elderly, kurta clad, cheered vigorously. For Gandhians, embedded in the past, any approbation of Gandhi, even from an unlikely source such as Bollywood, gives comfort. This, and the popular acclaim for the film raise some issues to examine, since the movie has some problematic elements to it.

Lage Raho Munnabhai indeed, seemingly, pleads powerfully for the Gandhian alternative. But it also has elements that almost appear tongue-in-cheek, indeed farcical. The question arises that while seemingly progressive, is it actually reactionary? Is it an easy reader on Gandhi: Gandhism in two quick steps? And so, is it in fact frivolity or mere entertainment, using the Mahatma as a prop to base a story on? The treatment can be contrasted with the two main ways in which the Gandhian theme has been treated so far in performance: heroic, and troubled. Ben Kingsley as Gandhi immortalises the man. On stage, in Gandhi vs Gandhi, Naseeruddin Shah pulls him down a notch, bringing out the more bitter parts of his legacy. Not that Gandhi has not had his detractors. But it is only the genius of Bollywood that can bring out an interpretation that borders on the farcical. And, come to think of it, why not, so long as one is not misled about the message?

‘Gandhigiri’ over ‘Dadagiri’?

It is a simple story. Munnabhai (actor Sanjay Dutt) transforms in a short time from a small time Mumbai underworld tough into a present day Gandhi. He

Economic and Political Weekly October 14, 2006 provides solace to troubled Mumbaikars by (literally) airing his truth and peace remedies over a radio channel. And, by direct action of non-violent protest, he finally converts Lucky, the house-grabber villain, who ends up getting addicted to Gandhi (apt name, Lucky, for a villain who transforms himself, thus avoiding the usual ignominy reserved for screen villains). Munnabhai openly converses with Gandhi (actor Dileep Prabhavalkar), seeking guidance and solace, perplexing those around him, who think he has gone crazy. Gandhi, the subject of his study turns into an obsessive object. This experiment with truth starts with passion for an unseen girl, followed by delirious exchanges with an apparition. So, this version of Gandhi’s truth involves opportunism to woo a girl, followed by hallucination. You lose control of your senses and see the truth. Goodness in dementia.

Secondly, the film makes “Gandhigiri”

– a term used doubtless for the first time but which has struck a chord among young people – instrumental for achieving the end. The villain Lucky places his wallet and his gun on the table while negotiating a land grab. Choose, he says, which one you want. Well, says Munnabhai’s oracle, you can as well choose Gandhigiri as a means to the end, instead of “dadagiri”, the use of force. Doubtless the objection rose by some of the Mahatma’s descendants to the use of this term is not just to the farcical expression but the implied instrumentality. As the film unfolds, Munnabhai embarks on a peaceful satyagraha, not for any larger purpose but to rescue his beloved from the machinations of the landgrab villain. Quite aptly these days, such self-seeking protests are called, not satyagraha, but “dharna” – an instrumental form of Gandhian non-violence, on occasion far removed from righteous causes, a Gandhian legacy nevertheless.

Thirdly, is the conversion to this means of peaceful direct action enduring, or transient? During his peaceful protest, Munnabhai meekly takes in one big blow from the guard outside the villain’s house, where he is camping. But on the second blow, our Gandhian retaliates with a film style rebuff that sends the guard flying to the ground, saying that Gandhi did not say what to do after receiving the second blow. The audience heaves a sigh of relief. It would be rather too much in a formula film to show an effete hero, who meekly submits to violence, and cannot show off his prowess. And yet, that precisely is the contrarian theme of this movie, one that cannot really be upheld by Gandhian principles. A hero, who “uses” nonviolence, but has equal strength to retaliate when he chooses. Munnabhai does this again and again. Towards the end of the film Munnabhai and friend make a quack astrologer admit his failings. But how? He is made terror-struck about his own life when a gun is put to his head, and counting starts to ten. After all, he cannot predict his own life span. So, that is how the message of rationality, and truth is imparted, with a gun inspiring terror. Who said the pen is more powerful than the sword? And these reformed Gandhians are shown to live happily ever after. Truth has been quickly acquired and digested. Not for them the eternal quest for truth and inner conflict of the Mahatma. To quote Norman Mailer in The Gospel according to the Son (p 249, Ballantine Books): “But then, who but Satan would wish to tell us that our way should be easy? For love is not the sure path that will take us to our good end, but is instead the reward we receive at the end of the hard road that is our life and the days of our life.”

Economic and Political Weekly October 14, 2006

There is yet another curious twist to these experiments with truth. After all, did not Gandhi bare his soul and share his innermost thoughts with others. So be it, says the film. The discovery of the truth by Munna and others is a shared community experience, not a personal search within the self. Our hero counsels the distraught over the air, on phone talk lines, and listeners applaud and marvel at the instant magic “Gandhigiri” offers. Munna himself comes to realise that he is suffering from the delusion of “seeing” Gandhi, when he is cross-examined in the course of a press conference by his psychiatrist in the presence of a large audience. This merging of individual identity and privacy with open sharing, is it modern or traditional?

In an article in the Times of India (‘Brand Mahatma’, September 23, 2006), Shiv Viswanathan argues that in an age when information is value, Gandhi becomes a brand. Indeed, he must be sold and just as in an advertisement, a bit of the comic is in order. Lucky the villain is shown in the film, morphing his pictures with great personages – the US president, and the British queen – perhaps a first step for globalising his land grabs. And, in the film, in the concluding scene, Lucky is in the Gandhi library reading up, and he too starts seeing visions. To capture this moment when he can be snapped with Gandhi before he snaps out, a photographer is called in (ready in the aisles) and the picture is taken. What use now would Lucky put this picture to, one wonders?

An attempt to be comic, also tongue-incheek, history as spoof. Every person who reads up on Gandhi in the film moves into delusion! Almost like the impact of experiments with drugs, though, not by a long stretch with the truth. Lage Raho Munnabhai trivialises Gandhi: history as farce. In its own way, the film contributes to the turning of history into myth.

EPW

Email: s.ganesh@interstrat.co.in

Economic and Political Weekly October 14, 2006

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