7 March 2013

Framing the Divide: Kai Po Che and the politics of Gujarat

An opinion piece I did for today's Indian Express

Abhishek Kapoor’s recent film Kai Po Che, like the Chetan Bhagat novel on which it is based, revolves around the lives of three young men in Ahmedabad between 2000 and 2002. In both book and film, the personal trials of Govind Patel, Ishaan Bhat and Omi Shastri — and Ishaan’s young cricketing protege Ali — are tied to larger events that have shaped the history of our collective present: the 2001 Bhuj earthquake, India’s fabled cricketing comeback against Australia at Eden Gardens in 2001, the Godhra train burning incident of 2002 and the widespread communal killings that followed.

Revealing the power of Hindi cinema as compared to popular fiction in English (even a small multiplex hit versus a best-selling novel by India’s highest-selling English novelist), the film’s release — timed to coincide with the anniversary of the Gujarat killings — has led to a flurry of editorial commentary that takes more notice of Bhagat’s fictional politics than has probably ever been taken before.

The film, and Chetan Bhagat, have been accused of whitewashing Gujarat 2002, by excising those parts of The 3 Mistakes of My Life that might displease Narendra Modi, now the BJP’s unofficial prime ministerial candidate. These commentators argue that Kai Po Che is a feel-good Bollywood spectacle, that it steers clear of the damning references to the “Hindu party” that litter the book, that it rewrites state-sponsored killings into local-level, near-spontaneous vendetta, and lastly, that it provides justification for the post-Godhra violence by having a central character, Omi, lose both his parents in Godhra, rather than just a nephew.

Having watched the film and read the book, I must confess to being baffled by the conclusions these commentators have come to. To me, the film (whose script, it should be stressed, is the result of Bhagat’s collaboration with Pubali Chaudhari, Supratik Sen and director Abhishek Kapoor) is not just less clunky and better characterised than the book, but arguably also a more effective and affective comment on the politics of Gujarat.

In both book and film, for instance, the 2001 earthquake is shown as having a personal impact on the lives of the characters: when the new mall in Navrangpura, in which the three friends have staked a massive amount of borrowed money as deposit on the plush sports shop of their dreams, collapses before it can be completed. In both narratives, Govind is particularly destroyed, not just because the sum seems an impossibly large one to earn back, but because the risk he took has become the cause of their ruination, challenging his self-image as the one with a head for business. But the film adds new things. Before the quake, we see Bittoo Mama, Omi’s uncle and an up-and-coming politician of the Hindu chauvinist party, express reluctance to lend the boys the money for the shop deposit — because the mall owner is Muslim. And after the quake, the distribution of aid is shown as completely demarcated along community lines: so much so that when Ishaan tries to get Ali and his Juhapura neighbours access to the relief camp, he and his closest friend Omi nearly come to blows. These additions — sharp and cinematic moments that take the place of the long-winded political arguments in Bhagat’s book — establish the tragically polarised state of Gujarati society more powerfully than any political speechifying ever could.

Another thing the film does better than the book is to make a distinction that all too many secular commentators often fail to, between people who are religious, even orthodox, and those for whom a religious identity is the basis of socio-political action. Omi’s father is a deeply religious man, the priest of the local temple, but he is shown as clearly refusing to ally himself with Bittoo’s Hindu political party, and as being extremely reluctant to go to Ayodhya.

The “Hindu party” is certainly not excised from the film; in fact, its organised role in the post-Godhra attacking of Muslim neighbourhoods is personified in Bittoo Mama, who is if anything a more lethal figure here than he was in the book — armed not with a clumsy old-fashioned trishul, as in the book, but with a sleek, contemporary gun. He is not overwrought, drunken, debilitated by his son’s death (for it is Omi’s cousin, not nephew, who dies in the book), but completely in control, placing gleaming swords in the hands of those more easily swayed and propelling them towards murder.

But the most crucial thing that these critics fail to mention is how the film transforms the character of Omi, and through his altered fate, its addressing of the events of 2002. If Omi is emblematic of the slightly aimless, unemployed young man swayed by Hindutva because it gives him an easy, faux sense of belonging to a community, the film forces us to confront the fatal path down which that blindness can lead. The young man whose confused longing for a Hindu-majoritarian politics made him a sacrificial victim in the book, becomes in Kai Po Che the person responsible for violence. Omi’s complicity points to the dangers of our own. If this is a feel-good spectacle, let us by all means have more.

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