Social conflict and Hindi cinema – a plea for resurrection of art and the politics of the possible
However despite the novelty that these films bring both in terms of form and content, there is certain sense of disquiet one feels while viewing some. While most of them do take up issues and matters that go beyond the pale of mere entertainment and escapism, which in itself do not exonerate these films. Presently I take issue with the way politics and possibilities of the political are brought about in them. Politics and the political I see as a civil engagement in public sphere (and such engagements itself engenders and furthers the public sphere) to wrestle matters that confront the society at large. It is the means by which both civil society and democracy makes itself more meaningful and is strengthened by involvement of people across the demographic spectrum who participate, debate and interface in a dialogic fashion strengthening the social fabric.
Numerous films mentioned above (and more) either presents the political space in very perverse terms or in fact shows no possibility of the politics of engagement. Further the resolution they seek is based more on nihilistic, individualistic aggrandizement of the self. The upshot of brutalization of society, its violence, corruption is best resolved only when it is matched in equal measure by a vigilante self. Ergo no attempt is made to indicate possibilities of political engagement. It is in the above context and the non-existent or even if so a very feeble attempt of these films, to show such political possibilities that one can take issue with them. Let me take the instance of a recent film NH 10. The slickness and the craftedness of the film notwithstanding, there were few ambiguities that one was left with. At one level I saw the film as outlining the clashes between two elite groups - the rural and the urban and not as much between the haves and have nots, an impression that one otherwise may get. While applauding its craft, at the end of the film I was left with this thought- do the urbane upper class denizens cooped in their glass, tinted and seemingly exclusive spaces (notice how frequently the divisions between them and the rest is mediated through a mere fragile glass screens - car, office, residence) have greater nihilistic rights in their inability to comprehend the brutality and savagery of rural India? (as characters of Anushka Sharma and Neil Bhoopalam represent) It appears that bourgeois sensibilities alone, even as it is opportunistic and hypocritical, can claim greater moral rights, in which other groups inhabiting a different moral world, however repugnant, are best eliminated. No engagement is possible, either politically or socially as India hurries towards disingenuous modernity.
Then in Vishal Bharadwaj’s earlier film Kaminey, about two twin siblings (Shahid Kapoor), where one is an NGO activist and other a small time crook and punter, in which crime and corruption are shown seeping through the city’s police, its political class and its businesses. And as the film progresses, it morphs the more uppity activist sibling recoursing to ‘questionable’ means (including bloodshed) to supposedly redeem an unsavory situation both of the siblings are swirled into.
On the other hand when a Ram Gopal Verma or a Anurag Kashyap (more known for making ‘dark’ films and unapologetically so) centre their films on violence whose protagonists’ often are people on the fringes, their marginality is seen to be good enough to justify their violence, their corruption and their malevolence. Thus in many of such films, the narratives are so structured that the possibility of the political space is either non-existent or weak, it is meaningless and since often hijacked by the authoritative and the coercive, it also becomes an alibi for a reaction similar in kind by those on the margins. The problem which I see is how these processes emerge as an a priori, a ‘given’ and are not worth further debating. In portraying supposed realism and celebrating it or often by contriving matters to appear gray - where matters, situations and characters are supposed to be 'nuanced' and 'complex' - the films underplay idealism and suggest its pointless utility.
But then what do we obtain in cinema of these sorts? Realism itself becomes ‘real’ when resolutions do not merely comfort and confirm our pre-conceived, simplistic and often shallow conceptualization of the political – of might is right, tit has to be responded with tat, of instant deliverance in the here and the now. Indeed securing an understanding of the political in a more deeper and nuanced fashion is an educative process and art (including literature, fine arts, theatre and films) itself is one of the main means through which such a view of the political is fashioned. It is education which ideally should be providing us with means to both recognize the possibilities in art and to refashion the political space. But alas, we live in times when formal education is so instrumental and tied up intimately to mere employment and career prospects. Humanities and social sciences – more directly involved in rendering such possibilities in education - itself is reduced to mere memorization of information and ‘factoids’. The main processes of our politicization is media which needless to say has also rendered possibilities of the public sphere and social transformation limited by reducing all to a spectacle where politics is a drama, an item of consumption. Under such circumstances does it not become more incumbent of art to render this onerous function? But then, a question can be asked - when all possible fora of modern existence have been consumed by the torrent of the instant, the immediate, the tangible which gratifies and enhances our instincts, our cold intellect and dexterity of skills but which is bereft of a soul and spirit, is it then valid to expect art alone to display conviction of thoughts and politics? Yes, it is valid and art simply cannot be reduced to the dominant will trending in society. It is in this contradistinction that art validates itself. It is as many say a counter-cultural space. Will come back to this in a while.
Keeping in mind the earlier point I made , Haider and Shanghai (though please note I’m not touting them as examples of great cinema. What constitutes good cinema is not what we are debating here. I’m just taking one aspect – political projections. It is quite possible that in numerous other aspects of film grammar these films fail.) are good counters pointing how art can and should buck dominant trends and reaffirm its possibilities in politics of engagement, contestation, and dialogue. And even when such politics fail on the ground, art or cinema continue to repose faith in such an imagination, a dream, a vision, something a society as well should pursue. Indeed it is art and cinema which gives and sustains this hope.