Social conflict and Hindi cinema – a plea for resurrection of art and the politics of the possible

In recent years within the confines of what one sees as mainstream cinema there has been certain crop of Hindi films which have attempted to explore the seamier and often grisly side of our social existence – the world of crime, the underworld, violence, life on the margins, of the disenfranchised and the likes. Movies like Kaminey, Shanghai, Haider, Shor in the City, NH-10, comes to mind. What actually is seen distinguishing these films perhaps is not as much the themes (life of crime for example in itself has been de jure staple of popular Hindi cinema along with romance) but the treatment. Shorn of melodrama, crassness and kitschy sentimentality, many find certain refreshing use of film grammar even as they retain certain nativity (songs for instance like in Kaminey, Shor in the City or Haider). Many see in these films certain ‘realism’, where any gloss and glamour if present are viewed as more symbolic or metaphorical to build a plausible narrative – best exemplified in NH 10. In exploring a given milieu in considerable starkness, nuance and detail, these films engender a feel and texture that amplifies the divided demographies, its violence - both latent and brazen and the tenuousness and fragility of our social fabric that is often hinged by brutal power. Further in these films our own prejudicial, hypocritical and insular values and attitudes that largely goes unexamined in the blur of our materialistic and consumeristic existence are disinterred in a largely de-reifying endeavor. Of course the so called art cinema of the 70s and 80s by the likes of Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalini did all of the above and more and so brilliantly. But the former films that have emerged over the last decade are not perceived to be art house films. They are rather christened as multiplex films catering to an upwardly mobile, aspiring and supposedly discerning audiences and boasts of a star cast associated with pot-boilers . Ergo their identification as being largely ‘mainstream’ or more charitably ‘middle’ cinema.

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.
However uneven levels and deep schisms characterize the public sphere with matters loaded evidently in service of the privileged – the economically and socially dominant and the kind of brute force that they bring to bear on the rest – which does skew engagements ipso facto in favour of the privileged. But the problem rather is the tameness with which much of our popular narratives in Bollywood render this important reality. The corruption, the brazen abuse and misuse of power, the hubris, the violence of the mighty and the rich is matched by the brutalization and violence of the weak and the marginal. And this contrast unravels in a rather banal and matter-of-factly fashion in much of this middle cinema.

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.
Likewise in the film Shor in the City (this film released might be bit dated and today remembered largely for its scintillating soundtrack) we have this NRI protagonist seeking to establish a business in Mumbai but who is intimidated by a bunch of hoodlums who seek their haftas and disrupt all his attempt to pursue his enterprise. Failing to secure any support from the police, he finally in a true vigilante fashion guns down the three gangsters. This emerges in the film as sheer act of desperation by one of its protagonists.
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.
However while many of these films noted above can be so problematized, I would also dwell on another such film - Haider – which unravels in ways contrary to the narratives seen in many other films. For in Haider there is some attempt to delineate and depict the space of civil engagement, dialogue and deliberation but simultaneously rendered so convoluted and subverted, which makes one’s engagement and experience of politics and the political so painful and dehumanizing. Haider as a film offers possibilities of making such a reading even as the film is expressly just about one family caught in times of brutalization transpiring in contemporary Kashmir. We see in Haider, the nexus of the state and the armed forces, the farcical political process involving a blatant rigging of elections, in which the well-heeled of Kashmir themselves collaborate (Kay Kay Menon in the film among the many characters who appear representing this segment). These processes mocks the legitimate aspirations of the Kashmiris and what is also suggested is how human frailties, human ego and indulging the latter at the cost of everything else (The role essayed by Tabu) further corrodes the prospect that otherwise is possible in a political process. Indeed it is such opportunism, insularity and self-indulgence something that all of us (but more specifically the middle classes who otherwise are better placed to steer and strengthen a democratic society based on dialogue, empathy and collaboration) are prey to, that empties the political possibilities in the public sphere and weakens civil society. This also provides us the context to understand the movement that emerges on the margins and fringes (i.e. terrorism, Maoism) whose acts can therefore make a more legitimate claim on politics. (No doubt Haider being based on Hamlet, is per force helped by the very structuring of the narrative by the Bard of Avon) Dibakar Bannerji’s Shanghai could also be seen as another example of a film which engages with the political space to combat the intimidating attempts of the state, even as its civil and constitutional possibilities are doomed to fail and reduced to an inert void manipulated by the powers that be. However in Shanghai the truism that democracy is a farce is not as such used as an excuse for an vigilante process.

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.