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Beyond our interpreters of maladies

Beyond our interpreters of maladies
‘Controversial’ films and protests against them have a very long tradition in the Indian Union. ‘PK’, the superhit Bollywood film, packs an eclectic punch - an alien accidentally stranded on planet earth, Indo-Pak romantic love, scheming ‘godman’, a faux version of rustic desis, Delhi and much more.
Hindu Sena, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal, Hindu Yuva Vahini and other Hindutva groups have taken to the streets in certain areas claiming that the film hurt Hindu sentiments by showing its gods, goddesses and ‘godmen’ in poor light.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Government of India, has maintained that it is absurd for the party to take responsibility for the action of other organisations. It has neither opposed the anti-PK protests nor has it condemned the intimidating tactic used to disrupt the screening of ‘PK’ in certain cinema halls. Delhi, Ahmedabad, Bhopal, Mumbai, Agra, Bareilly, Jammu – the major cities where militant protests have been staged against the film – do not form such an eclectic bunch. They are all cities, where the Bhartiya Janata Party swept through the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

As a Bengali sitting in non-protesting Kolkata and listening  to a Tamil friend from a non-protesting Madurai, something tells me that BJP’s political dominance in the protesting towns is not accidental. The self-appointed ‘thikadars’ of Hindu sentiments have never ever been able to win a majority of Hindu votes. ‘Uneducated’, ‘superstitious’, ’irrational’, ‘godman’ adoring, believing Hindus have ensured that – time after time. Cosmo-liberals hold them and their beliefs in contempt. Hindutva folks hate them and their plural, local beliefs. They are just not good enough to represent muscular first-class citizens of a first-class nation-state. Unoriginality is a predictable characteristic of Bollywood. The contemporary non-divine humanoid alien is one of those ideas that has travelled from the West to certain sectors of the subcontinent’s elite. Since its first import and subsequent re-imports, it has trickled down to the ‘masses’ but only a little bit.  An alien from another planet is largely an alien concept in the subcontinent. In the belief of millions, other planets are divine and semi-divine beings unto themselves, not physical homes of other creatures. Science, a favourite tool used to end debates in brown people’s societies, does not have any evidence supporting the presence of aliens or divines.

Being conversant with the concept of the humanoid alien is crucial to appreciating the film ‘PK’. Like much of contemporary Bollywood, the film excludes more browns than it includes. But a film has no commitment to mass appreciation. Purchasing power is the more relevant god, who needs to be placated, somewhat like the dividing line between the general populace  and ‘tax paying citizens’. The brown folks who will never get to see ‘PK’, ‘controversy’ or not, outnumber all the ones who will buy tickets to see it. The anti-‘PK’ protesters know it. They also know that ‘PK’ is an excuse. The content debate is irrelevant beyond a point. It is about barging into an unrepresentative ‘public’ space with another unrepresentative agenda.

At its core, this represents a tussle between two contending ideas of the Delhi-Mumbai ‘idea of India’ consensus – Hindu with a capital H versus India with a capital I. They are more similar to each other than they would like to publicly admit. Both seek to exclude things that are not in line with Anglo Hindia. Even as they actively exclude, they cynically ‘celebrate’ and present a deracinated caricature of the subcontinent’s diversity as their ‘face to the world’. By sheer money power, insider caste-class networks and predictable urban locations, they seek to limit the lingo and the form of  ‘public’ debate. Both talk down to people of little faiths and those rooted to their places of birth. None of them particularly like ‘superstitious’ polytheists either. Both secretly wish that they could magically and radically transform people’s ‘mentality’.

They could care less about the people, who find in their holy men, some sense of peace and hope. It’s easy for the privileged to vilify the midwives of soul in a soulless world. Mockery couched in the language of secularism doesn’t help. Even the word ‘godmen’ is an invention of the Anglicised cosmo-lib class which couldn’t care less about gods, goddesses and more importantly the lived experiences of men and women further down in the socio-economic ladder.

Not so long ago, there was a time when justice meant decreasing inequities. In this land, boycott has been used as a potent symbol of protest and resistance. Yesterday, I came upon a ‘protest’ that would involve buying a Rs 300 ticket to watch ‘PK’ at a multiplex. Forget boycott. Now is the time for protest by buying and consumption. This deeply exclusionary and undemocratic form of ‘protest’ is but natural for the alienated – probably apt for a film about an alien. PK is a fictional alien. People-like-us are more alien to most brown people than ‘PK’ ever will be.  At least he could speak whole sentences at a stretch for 5 minutes in a desi language. The ‘car-sex’ class knows other ‘PK’s very well. Those urchin ‘PK’s steal sideview-mirrors of cars, not clothes. They are ‘aliens’ that ‘car-sex’-wallahs hate.

I must admit, I’m quite envious of the amount of money the producers of PK are making. If I were anyhow associated with the making of the film, greater box office collections would also financially benefit me. I would parrot glib phrases about freedom of speech. I would also talk about the artist’s right to expression, while secretly hoping that the protest kept simmering so that the ‘controversy’ remained in focus.  Of course, I wouldn’t want the controversies to boil over to an extent that they actually start hitting my bottom-line.  This is why I would have, like many others of the fashionable ‘artists’ freedom of expression’ racket, given regular salaams to the Hindi Hriday Samrat of Mumbai if he were still alive. It’s all about hitting the sweetest spot. ‘PK’ has hit it very sweet indeed crossing a figure of Rs 600 crore including overseas collections and counting, laughing all the way to the bank. IPA

Garga Chatterjee

Garga Chatterjee

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