5 August 2011

The Politics of Prakash Jha

A critical essay, published in The Caravan, August 2011, tracing the well-known filmmaker's changing political trajectory:

IN PRAKASH JHA'S Raajneeti, a commercial and critical hit from 2010, there’s a pivotal scene in which Nana Patekar — playing Brij Gopal, longtime mentor and strategician to the dynastic political party around whose fortunes the film revolves — arrives in a Dalit neighbourhood. Even as older members of the community greet him with surprise and pleasure, Brij Gopal moves quickly to deliver the announcement he has come to make: the respected but harmless Ram Charittar will be the party’s election candidate from Azad Nagar. As Ram Charittar raises his bewildered gaze to the camera in the midst of a shocked crowd, you cannot but remember the scene in Jha’s 1984 film Damul (Bonded Until Death), where the similarly hapless old Gokul is declared a candidate in the village Panchayat election by the wily landlord Bachcha Singh. As Bachcha Babu leads the assembled members of the Dalit basti in a spontaneous campaign chant of his own creation (“Bolo, ‘Gokul hamara neta hai!’”), it is Gokul’s baffled eyes on which the camera focuses.

This moment of resonance — across a gap of 26 years — would seem to indicate that Prakash Jha’s concerns as a filmmaker have remained constant since the beginning of his career. In some crucial respects, this is true. Jha is often identified — correctly — as someone whose filmmaking career is driven by his interest in Indian politics, specifically the politics of post-1970s Bihar and the changing role of caste. As I write this piece, he is preparing for the 12 August release of his latest film, Aarakshan (Reservation), a drama centred around the controversial issue of caste-based reservations in government jobs and educational institutions, starring Saif Ali Khan, Amitabh Bachchan, Manoj Bajpayee and Deepika Padukone. But Jha’s journey from the village-level machinations of Damul (officially his second full-length feature) to the battle for chief ministership in Raajneeti has not been merely about a straightforward expansion of the canvas. Much has stayed the same: Jha’s penchant for dramatically-shot set pieces; his unerring ear for the cadences of Bihari speech, with the occasional English word inserted with absolute accuracy all the way from Damul’s “Panchayat ka faisla final hoga”; his keen grasp of the deeply masculine worlds of politics, business and crime — and the intersection of all three — in the Hindi heartland. But a great deal has changed.

Let’s look, for example, at the two scenes just mentioned.
In Damul, it is made quite clear that the Brahmins of the village - specifically the landlord Madho Pandey and his family — have monopolised power for years. The village Rajputs, led by the politically ambitious Bachcha Singh, seek to overturn this Brahmin dominance. But this is an electoral democracy, and they know they will never have the numbers if they put up one of their own. So they decide instead to name a puppet Dalit candidate: the well-loved but utterly harmless Dalit elder, Gokul. Madho Pandey discovers what’s happening, orchestrates a backroom deal with Bachcha Singh and unleashes terror on the village Dalits, eventually rigging the election by getting votes cast in their names while they’re held captive in their basti.

In Raajneeti, the political situation is quite different. Here, too, the upper castes—in this case a party run by a Rajput political family—have controlled the state for years. But the desire for political representation now emerges from within the Dalit community, in the form of Sooraj (Ajay Devgn), a kabaddi champion and aspiring youth leader of the urban Dalit constituency, an area significantly named Azad Nagar. It is to scotch Sooraj’s ambitions—that is, a bid for power by a Dalit and not by just another upper caste rival—that Sooraj’s father Ram Charittar is propped up as puppet.

One could argue that Jha’s altered premise accommodates both the tectonic shifts in Dalit and OBC politics that have taken place in the post-Mandal era, as well as the extent to which the upper caste stranglehold on power remains intact. But if one starts to unpack it just a little, the digressions tumble out. Jha’s characterisation of Sooraj leaves a great deal to be desired. For one, it is not clear why winning a couple of kabaddi matches should result in older politicians declaring the young man “Dalit samaaj ka ubharta sooraj”. And it is even less clear what Sooraj himself understands as his political role: what does he intend to do to better the conditions of his constituency? Declamatory moments are aplenty, right from the time when Sooraj is greeted by thunderous applause at a rally where the official party candidate is being announced. But despite Jha’s apparent critique of tokenism (Ram Charittar being made to stand), he appears to be content with the equally hollow symbolism that Sooraj’s candidature represents. This is a man whose sole qualification to represent Azad Nagar seems to be that he’s an insider rather than an outsider; the film’s dialogue constantly reiterates the fact that he is “hamaare beech ka” (“from among us”). (Though Sooraj’s claim to insider-ness is ironically undercut in the mode of the classic feudal family romance when he is revealed to be the illegitimate eldest son of Bharati Pratap — and therefore not Dalit by birth.)

Raajneeti (2010) is a political thriller that draws parallels between the Mahabharata and Indian politics.
Mrityudand (1997) is a commentary on social and gender injustices that plague Bihar. 
But the political implication here — that only an insider can bring about change — is worth noting, especially because in several of Jha’s earlier films it was the outsider who appeared as the natural agent of social and political transformation. Think of Mrityudand (1997), the film with which Jha made his deliberate (and highly successful) entry into mainstream Hindi cinema, or of Gangaajal (2003), in which Jha sought to look at caste politics through the prism of the police.

In Mrityudand, unusually, the outsider is a woman. In a move he has never repeated since, Jha placed three women at the centre of that film’s narrative: the exploited low caste figure of Kanti (Shilpa Shirodkar); the long-suffering Chandravati (Shabana Azmi), branded as baanjh by her husband’s undeclared impotence; and, most importantly, Ketaki (Madhuri Dixit), a young bride married into a thakur household whose fortunes, unbeknownst to her, are threatened from within and without. It is the educated, self-possessed Ketaki who first resists her husband’s drunken demands (with the clap-worthy dialogue that made the film famous: “Aap pati hain, parmeshwar banne ki koshish mat keejiye.”) and then becomes the pillar around whom her family members—and later the harassed women of this fictional Bihari village called Bilaspur—gather and acquire the strength to defy their scheming, sexually exploitative male oppressors. The film is full of women who have been pushed to the edge, but until Ketaki’s arrival, their response is one of resignation, not rebellion. Mrityudand seems to trace Ketaki’s unusual courage to her fairly atypical upbringing—in the few minutes we see her before her marriage, she is shown to be an only child with an adoring father who’s a professor. And in a revealing line uttered by the film’s villains, it is her urban educated background that is held responsible for her troublemaking: “jabse woh town ka madam inke ghar mein aayi hai…”.

In Gangaajal (2003), the outsider protagonist is Amit Kumar (Ajay Devgn), an upright police officer who is posted as Superintendent of Police (SP) to another fictional Bihari village, this one called Tejpur. Tejpur’s reputation as a “rough area”, established in the film’s first few minutes, is further cemented by Amit Kumar’s discovery that everyone and everything there—including the local police—is controlled by the corrupt local politician Sadhu Yadav and his loutish son Sundar. Here, the fact that the outsider has greater courage and integrity than the locals is not attributed to his urban-ness, or his education. He is not beholden to Tejpur’s evil politicians because he has not—unlike, for example, his junior local colleague Bachcha Yadav—reached his position by their dispensation. But apart from this preliminary advantage, he is simply the hero: an incorruptible man who refuses to be cowed by either physical danger to his life or the threat to his job, a police officer who pushes his team to take on the powerful local mafia, but recognises the dangerous consequences of creating a tyrannical and unaccountable police force.

But perhaps we ought not to frame this discussion of Prakash Jha’s protagonists in terms of insiders and outsiders. Some ‘insiders’, bound by ties of family or community, might be more likely to be morally compromised, Jha seems to say — think of the village-wide silence of complicity that meets the inquiry into the murder of a widow and her pregnant daughter at the start of Mrityudand, or the character of Bachcha Yadav in Gangaajal: a conscientous man, but one whose view of the world remains blinkered by loyalty to his jaat-bhais, for far too long.

But surely the crucial prism — one through which all protagonists must inevitably be viewed — is the ethical one. This is not to say that we should see people and events in black and white, but to state that most human actions have an ethical dimension. And in the self-consciously political world of Prakash Jha’s films, where the gulf between the powerful and the powerless is ever-present, the question of ethical responsibility in the exercise of power—especially the use of violence—seems an unavoidable one. Viewed from this perspective, Prakash Jha’s cinema has, over the years, grown steadily bereft of a moral core.

Jha’s first ‘political’ feature, Damul (1984), was part of the realist political cinema of the 1970s and 1980s, funded by the state in the form of the National Film Development Corporation and both aesthetically and ideologically of a piece with Jha’s earliest post-FTII documentaries, like the National Award-winning Faces After Storm about the Biharsharif riots of 1981. Damul describes the cynical machinations of the upper castes to retain their stranglehold on power (social, economic and political), and shows them resorting to violence each time their position is challenged even slightly. The Dalit protagonists of the film, Sanjivna (a very young and wonderfully effective Annu Kapoor) and his wife (Sreela Mazumdar), mutely suffer the consequences of Sanjivna’s father’s one attempted act of rebellion after a lifetime of service to the Brahmin landlord—smuggling a gun into the village to protect the Dalit basti from the impending attack during the election. Sanjivna’s father is killed, Sanjivna is forcibly embroiled in debt and bonded labour and finally falsely implicated in a murder, and the entire Dalit basti is terrorised before there is a single act of violence by a Dalit. In the context of such a skewed balance of power, there can be no doubt where Jha’s sympathies—and the audience’s—were meant to lie.

In Mrityudand, of course, it is women who must rise up against their oppression by men in general and the village’s exploitative villains in particular. Again, there can be no question about where Jha wants to lay the blame, or who he wishes to evoke audience empathy for. If anything, the moral lines are too black and white, with the women either paragons of goodness or victims of circumstance, while Tirpat Singh and his cronies represent unmitigated evil.

Gangaajal muddied the waters, moving beyond the broad-stroke characterisations of Mrityudand to the recognition that power can corrupt even those who are morally and legally in the right — in this case, the police. The film treads a difficult line between emphasising the difficulties faced by individual policemen in a world mired in corruption, and pointing out how they themselves perpetuate the systemic rot. Its fictional rendition of the infamous Bhagalpur blindings of 1979-80 (a connection denied by Jha in interviews, but impossible to ignore) attempts to underline —somewhat literally — Gandhi’s maxim about an eye for an eye making the whole world blind. But while Devgn’s Amit Kumar acknowledges the anarchy unleashed by law-enforcers in the name of preserving order, the film dangerously leaves the task of public accountability to the individual conscience of one man.

With Apaharan (2005), we arrive in a world where the police are not merely pawns in the games played by politicians or the mafia, but themselves initiate acts of crime. Shukla in Apaharan doesn’t just accept money to switch sides or close his eyes to an illegal activity, but is actually crucial in the rise of Ajay Devgn as a kidnapper. But we are not meant to identify with Shukla. What makes Apaharan a departure is Jha’s depiction of Ajay Devgn as the good guy-turned-bad. Devgn plays Ajay Shastri, a young man who aspires to join the police service, but has failed the IPS exams and is unable to make it to the Bihar State Police Service because, we are told, he is neither well-connected enough, nor an SC/ST/OBC candidate who will make it through caste-based reservation. A series of unfortunate incidents, combined with the intransigence of his impractically idealistic father, forces Ajay Shastri into a life of crime. Except that after the very first kidnapping, our hero’s actions seem impelled less by any sort of complusion and more by a sense of wounded pride. Even with this narrative arc, the film could have been compelling if Jha had managed to provide us with some semblance of a reason why we should feel invested in Devgn’s rise and fall. Instead, we are repeatedly offered the strangely hollow premise of a desire for success, for power — with not a glimmer of an explanation for how the once-idealistic wannabe-police officer resolves the moral dilemmas he confronts as a kidnapper of innocent people, with the occasional murder thrown in.

It is with Raajneeti (2010), though, that Jha has truly come full circle from his Damul days. The protagonists of this film, one ventures to suggest, might be the descendants of Damul’s upper caste villains. The scale may have expanded from a single village to a whole state, but the goal they seek to achieve is exactly the same: to keep the reins of power in their own hands. The people — brought in like the extras that they are, in rally after rally — have no role other than to clap, cheer and occasionally weep for these annadaatas of theirs. And no amount of strategic references to the Mahabharata or The Godfather can erase the fact that none of Raajneeti’s protagonists have either any qualms before or remorse after murdering those who challenge their claim to power. And none of them displays any interest in the larger ends that political power might be used to achieve — except to wield more of it. The film takes the Gita’s message about the ends being more important than the means and turns it into a might-is-right dictum: “Raajneeti mein jeet ko maan milta hai”. Even if we understand this as Jha’s truthful take on what politics is really like, it seems more than a little disturbing that there is no ethical centre to this film, no sense that the winners have won an unjust war.

How far Jha seems to have travelled from his first feature, Hip Hip Hurray (1983), a gentle, affecting film all about fighting the good fight. While waiting for a plum job to come through, a young Bombay-trained computer engineer named Sandeep (Raj Kiran) decides to spend the summer working as a sports teacher at a boys’ school in Ranchi. The film tells the story of Sandeep’s patient battle, on the one hand, against teachers who don’t believe sports have any value in the lives of students, and on the other, against difficult adolescents who are too busy affecting machismo to work hard at anything—especially not when urged by a sincere teacher. A Gulzar-scripted film that is perhaps Jha’s only feature to be set in a wholly middle-class milieu, Hip Hip Hurray is an exploration of masculinity—viewed here through the lens of sport and sportsmanship rather than Jha’s more usual one of violence and crime. (At one point, Sandeep even says something about how playing games keeps young boys away from trouble — a nice-enough pop theory of how potentially violent, competitive urges are sublimated into sport.)

The question of justice also lay at the centre of what is arguably Jha’s least-watched feature, Parinati (The Inevitable, 1986), which was screened at the London Film Festival (and which I first saw on Doordarshan, unforgettably, as a child). Based on a Rajasthani folk tale (retold by the writer Vijaydan Detha), Parinati is a film quite different from anything else Jha has ever made, shot beautifully against the dull browns of the Rajasthan desert, punctuated by the vivid reds and yellows of the women’s clothes and the bright whites and pinks of the houses. Evoking a faraway, mythical time, it tells the story of a poor potter and his wife who send their 11-year-old son away with a rich Bania couple who promises to bring him up as a wealthy trader. Once the boy is gone, however, the once-contented couple is infected by a desire for riches, leading them to commit more and more unethical acts—acts which cannot go unpunished. It is a tale almost fable-like in its simplicity, and yet the film is the most suggestive unravelling of a moral universe that I have ever seen. And so now we wait for Prakash Jha to return to creating worlds in which people are not absolved of the consequences of their actions.


amitesh said...

well written...congrats..unfolds many layers of prakash jha's creation.

sukhmani said...

the most summative and insightful examination of prakash jha's oeuvre till date.you've summed it up in one line-Prakash Jha’s cinema has, over the years, grown steadily bereft of a moral core.the quality of his films deteriorate as his subjects become more worthy.unfortunately, even aarakshan seems to be bombast dialogues and black and white characters.why are other filmmakers not willing to make films on subjects like this?