11 May 2014

Back to the Future

Today's column for the Mumbai Mirror:

Dekh Tamasha Dekh is about the fictions we tell ourselves. Some stories are battle hymns, others our only shield.

Towards the beginning of Dekh Tamasha Dekh, we see a newspaper editor telling a sincere young journalist to drop the idea of reviewing a potentially controversial revisionist history. "Start an astrological column instead," he says casually. "But I don't know anything about astrology. And I don't even believe in it," pleads the young man. "Arre, vishwas ki kya baat hai! Just write a good future for everyone, and there'll be no complaints." 

Later in the film, with his books fuelling a bonfire outside, the author of that history book is accosted by a leader of the Hindu right. "Tumhare itihas ko lekar logon mein kitna gussa hai, dekho. (See how much anger there is in people about your history.)" "This is also your history," responds the historian. "No. Our history is not like this. Ours is a history of sacrifice, of struggle and bravery. It gives us the strength for battle." 

As is evident from these two vignettes, Feroz Abbas Khan's film takes satirical shears to the stories we like to tell ourselves; becoming bloated on custom-made pasts and futures because we cannot digest uncomfortable truths. 

And yet this is not a film that can afford to invest all its energies in some pure idea of fact. The first and most sustained site of Khan's attack on facticity is the newspaper. Having watched the once-independent editor turn obsequious opportunist, when we hear a son accost his mother of being badchalan (immoral) on the basis of the front page news, we can hear only irony in the boy's teary remark: "Log bolte hain paper mein sach baat hi chhapti hai." 

Conspiring politicians, compromised policemen, a potential riot, a cross-religious love affair: none of these are new. The freshness of Dekh Tamasha Dekh comes from its stylistic refusal to stick to grim realism. This a film poised delicately on the edge of reality, deriving dark humour (and occasionally cold comfort) from forays into the surreal. A hawaldar is suspended for having let a dog be impregnated, a judge asked to decide if a dead man was Muslim ends up calling for the betelnut that was cut in lieu of his circumcision. 

These are difficult things to pull off without being either crude or heavy-handed. But Abbas has a talent for muted symbolism. Early in the film we see the politician Muttha Seth (Satish Kaushik) being assured that his newspaper's circulation will soon go up. "Humne serious article bilkul band karwa diye hain. Halke-phulke material dene ki humne koshish ki hai. [We have completely stopped running serious articles. We're trying to offer light and fluffy material...]," says the editor. Muttha Seth seems unconvinced, and somewhat distracted. He is busy being administered a mud bath, and there is something bizarrely appropriate about watching his massive, semi-naked bulk being deliberately slathered in mud. Soon afterwards, we watch a cutout of him - now in the politician's white khadi -- being installed in the town, in honour of his birthday. The worker struggling to adjust the scaffolding grumbles as he does so: "Sways whichever way the wind blows - kabhi right, kabhi left, kabhi centre. Big, big, always wanting to be bigger. Now he's so big he can't even stand straight." 

You're barely done smirking when the Muttha Seth cut-out crashes to ground. The next thing we know, a man is dead, and the little seaside village is tense with the threat of violence between communities laying claim to his half-interred body. Hamid Tangewala was a Muslim, says one lot -- married to Fatima and father of Shabbo. No, he was a Hindu called Kishen, says the other lot -- the brother of Lakshman. The menacing Hindu politician and the outraged Muslim ones gather at the police station. Incendiary speeches are made, and it is left to the town's new inspector (Vinay Jain) to safeguard the body and try to prevent a riot. 

When Shabbo weeps for fear that the town's two parties - Muslim and Hindu, though she doesn't say that -- will never her unite with Prashant, Prashant holds out to her the dream of a third party, a "pyar karne walon ki party". "Hum kareeb aane ke liye jhagadte hain, door jaane ke liye nahi [We fight to come together, not to move apart]." Meanwhile, the hawaldaar is possessed by the dead Hamid's ghost, and Shabbo gives Prashant a magic ring that she hopes might protect him from danger. 

Towards the film's end, the evening before the climactic procession, we hear the inspector on the phone to his child. "I'll tell you a story, but tomorrow." "Of what?" she demands. "Oh, of this village. There's an ocean, there are fish in the ocean, and crocodiles. And mermaids. And there's a mela, in which people come from far away to celebrate." 

In a world so full of engineered truths, Khan seems to be saying, sometimes the personal fiction might be our best hope.

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