9 August 2015

Not Losing Our Religion

My Mirror column today: 

The success of 'Bajrangi Bhaijaan' is a testament to our faith — in uncomplicated national myths, and in miracles.

It might seem up-to-the-minute, with a song about selfies and a narrative arc involving YouTube (courtesy Nawazuddin Siddiqui, doing a brilliant reprising of his Peepli Live turn as a TV news stringer). But Bajrangi Bhaijaan is a masterclass in old-style Hindi movie melodrama: slightly stupid golden-hearted hero, ridiculously winsome little mute girl, and that lost-child-of-unknown-religion plot that we warm to subliminally, from watching all those Manmohan Desai movies. At least one important political commentator has written a ridiculous piece that professes to expose the film's "unreal" aspects and then attacks it for a premise it does not profess (that India and Pakistan are the same). 

If you went into this film seeking "realistic" depictions of society or state on either side of the border - or of how the border itself operates - well, you might as well stop reading now. What Kabir Khan's film does - and does with some aplomb - is to produce an Indo-Pak narrative that speaks simultaneously to the worst and the best in both our countries. It does this by stripping down to the bare essentials - and weaving around them a film with enough broad-strokes to keep the laziest viewer in on things, and yet with enough sly detail to surprise you if you're falling asleep. 

The essentials, to make things even easier, are presented to us as binaries: India, Pakistan; Hindu, Muslim; veg, non-veg; saviour, spy; good, evil. None of these binaries is as clear-cut as the film makes out. But this simplistic mapping of the world - made a little more believable by being presented through the eyes of a man we're told isn't the brightest, but is "dil ka saaf" - makes possible an equally simple unravelling of kattar positions. 

So Indianness is represented by Hinduness, which is represented by the Hanuman-bhakt son of an ex-shaakha-pramukh (the second time this year that we've had a Hindi film hero shown trying to toe the RSS line and not quite succeeding - the first was Ayushmann Khurana in the wonderful Dum Laga Ke Haisha). Pavan Kumar Chaturvedi, affectionately known as Bajrangi after his favourite god, is Brahmin, vegetarian, asexual and generally vice-less, and Salman Khan plays him as a combination of goodness and stupidity that brings to mind a long list of anaari Hindi film heroes (think Ishwar). Meanwhile Pakistan is represented by a Kashmiri family in which the father has fought in the Pakistani army, but the grandfather remembers being taken to Delhi's Nizamuddin Dargah as a child. The family's devout Muslimness does not preclude a belief in Sufi shrines - it is a visit to a dargah that precipitates the child getting lost and being found, and even the discovery of her religious identity. 

The binary most clearly enunciated - and clearly dealt with - is the veg/non-veg one. The same smell, of meat cooking, that makes Pavan sniff suspiciously is so attractive to little Shahida that she follows it to the "Mohammedan" neighbours' house - and is happily being fed when Pavan discovers her. He drags her away, but what's fabulous is what happens next: an outing where Pavan can eat veg food, and the child can eat her fill of meat. The infectious Chicken song, couched as a tribute to "Chaudhary Dhaba" - "Aadha hai non-veg, Aur veg hai aadha, Spasht kijiye, kya hai iraada" - is as good a philosophical position as you can find on how to live successfully with others. There's some good-humoured mockery of upper-caste purity-pollution notions -"Thodi biryani bukhari, Thodi phir nalli nihari, Le aao aaj dharam bhrasht ho jaaye", followed by a funny but firm admonishment to those who might marshal culinary choices into divisive politics - "Sabhi ek plate mein adjust ho jaaye," go Mayur Puri's wonderful lyrics. 

The matter of the child's fair skin, too, is dealt with in this good-humoured way: showing up the ridiculousness of people's community-based stereotypes, but without being snide about it. Pavan's assumption that she must be Brahmin is based, he says, on how "gori" she is. When she reveals her meat-eating side, he decides she can't be Brahmin (never heard of Kashmir Pandits, or Bengalis, has he?). So, thinks Mr Genius, she must be Kshatriya: they're fair, and legit non-vegetarians. 

There are several themes which Bajrangi Bhaijaan shares with another recent film about an Indo-Pak encounter, Nitin Kakkar's Filmistaan (2014). One is cricket, another is the border. It's interesting how similar the Bajrangi scene of the child celebrating the Pakistani cricket win is to Filmistaan's scene of Sunny's joy at the Indian victory: both the spontaneous joy, and the irrational, violent anger it evokes in those of the other country. 

The border we see several times, and each time in a different register. First up is the bureaucratic border, policed by firm but human officials, who try to help but cannot bend the law. Next is the military border, manned by men with guns - but undercut by men making money. And last is the border as pure metaphor: a geographical point at which people gather to see themselves mirrored in the eyes of those on the other side. 

In fact, it is only in this respect that the film suggests that Indians and Pakistanis are alike- as human beings. Otherwise, Pavan's arrival in and journey through Pakistan is almost a version of PK's in an alien universe: an isolated desert landing, early encounters with unsympathetic, disbelieving residents, and a series of culture shocks involving religion and cross-dressing. What makes the film work, in fact, is its deliberate, almost mythical magnification of our differences - and a mythically pure human connection forged across them. Let's not think too much about Pakistan being represented as helplessly bezubaan, while India is the moonhphat saviour.

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