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Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, Delhi Belly and the Imagined Nation

Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara and Delhi Belly are perhaps among the first Indian films to propose that communities can be created entirely through a sharing of lifestyles without the need for productive transactions - because they are about people who simply "hang out" together.

COMMENTARY

Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, Delhi Belly and the Imagined Nation

M K Raghavendra

to bridge the gap between the expectations created by traditional belief and the actual dispensations of history. What popular film narrative apparently does is to problematise the experience of history in a language familiar to tradition and then provide fictional resolutions.

As an instance of the method, the economic liberalisation of 1991 aroused appre-

Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara and Delhi Belly are perhaps among the first Indian films to propose that communities can be created entirely through a sharing of lifestyles without the need for productive transactions – because they are about people who simply “hang out” together.

M K Raghavendra (mkragh54@gmail.com) is a film scholar and critic based in Bengaluru.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
september 3, 2011

H
indi cinema has been celebrating wealth and conspicuous consumption since the early 1990s but it is still too much of a coincidence for two films entirely about “lifestyle” to arrive simultaneously.

Zoya Akhtar’s Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara answers to this description most apparently but on looking underneath its grimy surface, so does Abhinay Deo’s Delhi Belly. There have been Hindi films about idle people before – like Farhan Akhtar’s Dil Chahta Hai (2001), to which Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara is apparently a 10th anniversary return – but the new film is different in a crucial way and it shares the characteristic with Delhi Belly. All three films are about relationships and loyalties, but the two new films suggest that relationships even within the same class are more loose today than before. The purpose of this short essay is to enquire into its significance because loyalties – to family, friends and relationships – have always meant much to the mainstream Hindi film, often providing its stories with their ethical thrust.

It is now a truism to say that mainstream Hindi cinema assisted in the imagining of the Indian nation. It has been shown by film theorists that Hindi entertainment cinema, which had been suturing cultural differences and producing a homogeneous mass culture even before 1947, became a useful tool in defining and maintaining the Indian nation (Chakravarty 1998, Prasad 1999). A study of audience reactions to Hindi cinema (Pfleiderer 1985: 89) testing several independent hypotheses on its social role concluded that it was largely an instrument of “cultural continuity”. Hindi films apparently stabilise the social system by representing new needs and mythologising “tradition”. New needs are historically created and an “instrument of cultural continuity” is perhaps required

vol xlvi no 36

hensions in the public about how the moral fabric of the nation might be affected with the end of Nehruvian socialism and non-interventionism by the State. A key film of the period, Baazigar (1993), responded by portraying the struggle between two families for the control of a business empire as a fight to death between the scion of one family and the patriarch of the other, with the police hesitating to intervene. As demonstrated elsewhere (Raghavendra 2008: 242-45, 280-81) the anti-hero of this film is engendered by the withdrawal of the State as a moral agent and his amorality shows itself in the way he takes advantage of and betrays a defenseless woman. This reading perhaps finds correspondence in Frederic Jameson’s (1987) assertion that “Third World” texts are necessarily national allegories because the distinction between private and public spaces has not yet emerged in the former colonies where private stories still have public connotations.

Communities, Loyalties, Relationships and Transactions

There are various ways in which the nation is inscribed in the Hindi film but a key one is to allegorise it as a community – a village as in Mother India (1957), a happy family in Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (HAHK, 1994), a cricket team in Lagaan (2001) or even a group of non-residents in Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna (2006). A more fundamental way is probably to invoke an object of loyalty – a figure or a relationship. The sacred mother in Hindi cinema in Awaara (1951) or Deewar (1975) has been shown to represent the nation; an affiliated concept like the land and the fraternal bond between friends or dosti can also be shown to be associated with it. But the important thing here is that a community is signified in a narrative only when people transact with each other in productive relationships and even “love” needs to

COMMENTARY

become a “transaction”. In HAHK, for instance, it is only through the well-known incident in the wedding party when the man saves the woman from the ignominy of defeat by letting her have the trophy of the ceremonial shoe that love develops. Another issue in HAHK is that the community is formed admitting the lowly (although as servants) into the society of the rich when the rich repay the loyalty of the servants by coming to their aid when in distress. This may reek of feudalism but the issue is that even in a community of people who are hardly equal, there need to be productive transactions between its members for a sense of community to exist or to be created.

The nation signified by Hindi cinema has never been an egalitarian one but it is still an imagined community in which people at different hierarchical levels need to transact productively. With Hindi cinema increasingly addressing a more affluent public from the metropolitan cities in the new millennium, the nation is becoming more asymmetrically constituted as is evident from films like Three Idiots (2009) but there is still a community knit together by productive transactions. The loyalty of the three friends to each other in this film arises because of their participating in the same work-related transaction – imbibing higher education from their authoritarian teacher Virus and proving him wrong.1 If “work” seems to derive from a capitalist world view, there is another notion that Hindi films invoke which perhaps derives from a feudal order – which is “station”. The hero of Bobby (1973) may not be engaged in “work” but the sense of station contained in the film suggests that he is expected to shoulder his father’s responsibilities and his marrying below his station might hinder it seriously instead of advancing it. Station and work have one thing in common which is their basis in a stable social order.

The Films

Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara and Delhi Belly are perhaps among the first Indian films to propose that communities can be created entirely through a sharing of lifestyles without the need for productive transactions – because they are about people who simply “hang out” together. Dil Chahta Hai may appear to be from the same mould but that film set up a series of crises in which the loyalty of the men to each other was tested through transactions. Although the characters in Dil Chahta Hai are apparently from the idle class, people choose partners against social dictate and convenience, suggesting that loyalties cannot be created without binding social transactions of some kind – even when they do not arise in economic pursuits. A woman protagonist, for instance, chooses the character played by Aamir Khan in Dil Chahta Hai when she is “pledged” to the son of the businessman who brought her up. Another man commits himself to an older, divorced woman although this leads to a break-up with his friends.

Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara is similar to Dil Chahta Hai except that men and women form pairs easily without going through tests of loyalty. The film is about three friends to embark on a holiday in Spain before one of them gets married, their adventures together and the women they pair with. The casualness of the relationships, the film’s indifference to the role of transactions in the building of lasting loyalties, can be grasped through the incident in which the financial broker Arjun’s (Hritik Roshan) mobile phone is flung out of a car window playfully by his friend Imraan (Farhan Akhtar) and it does not lead to a serious crisis – because Imraan buys him a new mobile phone. What the information stored on a mobile phone can represent to a professional does not engage the film at all in its studied casualness, and the two remain friends. In a milieu which is as fiercely competitive as today’s such an act might have led to murder but Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara sees “lifestyle” as the binding element. Loyalties owe simply to being together and doing the same things.

Delhi Belly

If Arjun is described as a financial broker and Imraan as a poet in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, the protagonists of Delhi Belly, which is conceived as an irreverent comedy, are also ostensibly employed. Tashi (Imran Khan) is a news reporter, Nitin Beri (Kunal Roy Kapur) is a photographer and Arup (Vir Das) is in advertising and the three share quarters in a ramshackle apartment. Tashi has a girlfriend named Sonia who is an airhostess. Their employment is, however, only intended as background information because the nature of their work plays no part in the drama. When the film opens, a Russian smuggling diamonds into the country passes a package to Sonia, briefly substituting for another girl.

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september 3, 2011 vol xlvi no 36

EPW
Economic Political Weekly

COMMENTARY

Meanwhile, Nitin Beri eats at the roadside eatery and has an upset stomach (“Delhi Belly”). Sonia drops the package containing diamonds at Tashi’s place to be carried further but it gets mixed up with a package containing Nitin’s faecal matter to be taken to a laboratory and the diamond smuggler gets the wrong package. Tashi, meanwhile, runs into another reporter Menaka (Poorna Jagannathan) whom he meets later at a party. He gets into an altercation with Vikram who happens to be Menaka’s ex-husband. The drama in the film comes out of escapades of the group when they are accosted on one side by the gun-toting Vikram and on the other by the murderous diamond smuggler Somayajulu (Vijay Raaz). At the end, Tashi discovers that he cares for Menaka and not Sonia and there is a romantic realignment. If Delhi Belly does not play up the glamour as Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara does and the characters live squalid lives, this has still more to do with lifestyle rather than with livelihood.

As indicated, Delhi Belly is positioned as an irreverent film, mocking or lampooning every social convention. Apart from the switching of packages which tries hard for comedy, the conversations abound in expletives and one might even gather from the film and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara that sexual propriety in Indian society has been abandoned. But in both films their “permissive” mores are merely a ploy to avoid the issue of interpersonal loyalties. Relationships are casual because people do not engage/transact with each other and not because they are more tolerant, since neither film problematises sexual morality.

Work and Livelihood Missing

If Delhi Belly is targeted at youth audiences and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara at the heavyspending urban classes, it still does not account for their disinclination to engage with the issues of work and livelihood. American youth films are often centred on college, and grades and careers are issues that youth films cannot do without – even the most escapist of them. Hollywood films which play up affluent lifestyles – like The Firm (1993) – never fail to also glamorise the kind of work which makes such lifestyles possible.

Delhi Belly and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara may belong to a consumerist society but so do the American films and this is apparently not an explanation. A reason could be that the Indian films are targeted at a class of rich young people who have no reason to earn their livelihood and are not familiar with the issue of work. Since even the prospect of work does not engage them, they have not considered the basis of their relationships. Another reason could be that new economy businesses are increasingly given to eliminating the human interface, bypassing interpersonal “transactions” at the everyday level. But whatever the reasons underlying the pheno menon, it points to the ephemeral nature of interpersonal relationships even within the same class and perhaps reflects upon the growing instability of a social order.

Delhi Belly and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara provide neither a sense of work nor one of station and this is eventually responsible for there being no loyalties either. Since there are no attachments except of a casual kind, there can be no “loyalties” and, in their absence, there can be no “communities” regardless of whether people share lifestyles or not. Since “communities” in Hindi cinema have been associated with the imagined nation, this leads to an important question.

Two explanations have been offered for the tendencies just noticed in the two films. Both suppose the arrival of a new “lumpenbourgeoisie”, a segment with spending power but with no loyalties even to its own class and Delhi Belly’s “irreverence” is indicative of this. Whatever criticism may be made against the traditional bourgeoisie in India, it still had to labour to retain its position at the top and was therefore actively involved in the nation. Inherited station also imposes a discipline on every new generation which needs to make an effort to retain its privileges. The new economy bourgeoisie in I ndia which has gained strength in the past decade seems to lack this characteristic a lthough it is taken to create “opinion”. But the important question here is whether a stable social order can be taken for granted when the generation that the films address comes into its own.

Whatever the outcome, Hindi cinema appears to have a parallel in Nigerian popular cinema (“Nollywood”) in which one rarely gets the sense of a stable community or a serious work ethic. Characters in Nigerian films seem to live anyhow dealing with whatever comes their way – like those in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara and Delhi Belly – and even personal loyalties appear to be non-existent. The sense of nationhood is also generally not to be found in African cinema because creating a country does not necessarily create a nation, which has to be imagined together by a sizeable public. The argument here is that 64 years after Independence, Indians can still not take the Indian nation as a given because, judging from Delhi Belly and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, it might soon wither away.

Note

1 However phoney the inclusion of the working class may be through Rancho being a gardener’s son there is also an attempt to make the community inclusive. See Raghavendra (2010).

References

Chakravarty, Sumita S (1998): National Identity in Indian Popular Cinema (New Delhi: Oxford University).

Jameson, Frederic (1987): “World Literature in the Age of Multinational Capitalism” in Koelb and Lokke (ed.), The Current in Criticism (West Lafayette (Ind.): Purdue University Press).

Pfleiderer, Beatrix (1985): “An Empirical Study of Urban and Semi-Urban Audience Reactions to Hindi Film” in Beatrix Pfleiderer and Lothar Lutze (ed.), The Hindi Film: Agent and Re-agent of Cultural Change (New Delhi: Manohar Publications).

Prasad, M Madhava (1999): Ideology of the Hindi Film (New Delhi: Oxford University Press).

Raghavendra, M K (2008): Seduced by the Familiar: Narration and Meaning in Indian Popular Cinema

(New Delhi: Oxford University Press).

– (2010): “India, Higher Education and Bollywood”, Economic Political Weekly, 6 March, pp 30-32.

EPW Index An author-title index for EPW has been prepared for the years from 1968 to 2010. The PDFs of the Index have been uploaded, year-wise, on the EPW web site. Visitors can download the Index for all the years from the site. (The Index for a few years is yet to be prepared and will be uploaded when ready.) EPW would like to acknowledge the help of G K Manjunath and the staff of the library of the Indira Gandhi Institute for Development Research, Mumbai, in preparing the index under a project supported by the RD Tata Trust.

Economic Political Weekly

EPW
september 3, 2011 vol xlvi no 36

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