9 September 2012

Post Facto: Hindi Cinema and the Curious Case of the Disappearing Servant

Kantaben in Kal Ho Na Ho
My column in the Sunday Guardian:

The recent death of AK Hangal led to many pieces about character actors: some waxing nostalgic about old favourites, some pointing to their low status in the industry hierarchy. Baradwaj Rangan, in a characteristically thoughtful piece, argued that there is no place for an actor like Hangal in today's India "where social-media platforms have weaned a tetchy, independent, wisea** citizenry that has little use for being fussed over by a faithful family retainer". As always, social-media platforms seem to be getting more importance here than they deserve — but there's no doubt that the old servant who was "an unshakable link to the values of a long time ago" has disappeared from contemporary Hindi cinema.

But if you think about it, the kind of family retainer who "took charge of feeding you the way your mother would, while also being the father you could turn to during life's bleakest moments" has been gone for much longer than we seem to realize.

As early as 1973, Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Bawarchi (itself based on Tapan Sinha's 1966 Bengali film Golpo Holeo Shotti), heralded the appearance of the servant as a service provider you had to seek out, rather than someone you inherited. The "you" here was, of course, the modern, urban, middle class householder, who could no longer count on wives and daughters and bahus to do the housework (the grandfather in Bawarchi makes a memorable cross-linguistic wisecrack about how bahus are now "daughters-in-law" and who wants to deal with the law early in the morning). The changing middle class woman is a definite subtext, but Bawarchi's humour hinges more directly on the perceived difficulty of finding (and keeping) servants in a post-feudal world. We also get a glimpse into a discourse about urban crime in which the (newly anonymous) servant has already begun to feature as a potential trickster/thief/ murderer. It is this fear that makes the family's reaction to Rajesh Khanna's Raghu so ambivalent — the more talented and hard-working he seems to be, the more suspicious they get.

Of course, since this is a Hrishikesh Mukherjee film, their fears are never realized. The ever-smiling Raghu Bhaiya — cook, cleaner, errand-runner, quarrel-resolver and instiller of family values for a changing world — is a wish-fulfilling figure whose cinematic function is precisely to fill the space left empty by the absence of a Ramu Kaka.

Through the 80s and some part of the 90s, the servant continued to exist in the Hindi film family, often providing the parallel-but-separate comedy track that was so essential to the classic Bombay cinema tradition. Many narratives made the shift to a younger-brother figure — think of everything from Deven Verma in Gulzar's Angoor (1982) to Laxmikant Berde in Maine Pyaar Kiya (1989) — which elided the question of the servant's real status even more. In 1997, Bawarchi was remade as Hero No. 1 — but in Hero No. 1, there is no suspense about Govinda's social status: he is no longer an anonymous reformer but a rich boy in disguise, out to win over his girlfriend's family.

This fictional cooption of servants into the family is something perhaps unique to our cinema. Our fictions never seem to have the distance between upstairs and downstairs that is fairly standard, say, in British depictions — from the Wodehousian comic version to Ishiguro's Remains of the Day, to Robert Altman's Gosford Park, the British mansion is a place where masters and servants inhabit different worlds, and the breaching of boundaries is either surreptitious or radical. But at the peak of our princely mansion stories, our Shammi Kapoor moment, we manage to create a bridge between classes through the imagined figure of a dai ma. We still haven't given up on this — Bol Bachchan(2012) has a scene where three old ladies appear simultaneously to play Abhishek Bachchan's mother in a real-life drama, and he labels them Ma, Dai Ma and — in mindboggling bad taste — Bai Ma.

But other than the occasional Kantaben-style figure of fun (Kal Ho Na Ho), the servant has more or less disappeared from our films, though quite obviously not from urban middle class lives. Other than a masterful exception like Shanghai (where Kalki Koechlin's maid turns out to be the one real cross-class relationship she has — and fails at), what we get by way of a 'realistic' depiction of servants is an NRI version which is more often than not, bland and devoid of all complexity. After Deepa Mehta's Fire and Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding, the most recent is Prashanth Nair's annoyingly black-and-white Delhi in a Day, where the bourgeois family 'upstairs' is not only inhuman but also hypocritical and crass, and the fictitious family-ness is transposed onto the 'downstairs', creating a world of servants-as-victims, shorn of all internal tensions — political or sexual or economic.

Deanie Ip in A Simple Life
Even the servant-as-family trope needn't necessarily be a middle class self-deception. Among the finest films I saw this year is Hong Kong director Ann Hui's A Simple Life, a moving yet completely clear-eyed depicton of the evolving relationship between a 30-something man and his ageing family cook-cum-housekeeper. In a country where having domestic help is still very much the middle class norm, shouldn't we have equally nuanced stories to tell?

Read this column in the Sunday Guardian, here.

No comments: