Sunday, July 09, 2006

On thousand such wishes

My knowledge of Ghalib consists solely of what Amar says (examples here, here and here). I’ll leave it to him to explain under what circumstances these verses were written:
Hazaaron khwaishein aisi ki har khwaish pe dum nikle
Bahut nikle mere armaan lekin phir bhi kam nikle.

Here I write about the movie Hazaaron khwaishein aisi.

This is not a straightforward movie review. I do recommend the movie. But here I write what I don’t like about it — its ending. I cannot of course do this without divulging the ending. I do wish you watch the movie, so if you haven’t, I suggest not reading what follows.

This is a love triangle. Vikram, a middle class guy from Mofussil Punjab, loves Geeta, an affluent South Indian girl raised in Delhi. But Geeta loves Siddharth, ‘son of a Muslim father and a Bengali Hindu mother who speaks neither of his parents’ languages’.

Siddharth is into revolution. By the first third of the movie, in the late 1960s, Siddharth leaves what seems like a princely life — his old man is a senior judge, and they clearly have an elite existence — to join the Naxalites in the bad lands of Bihar. Geeta marries an IAS officer. Vikram becomes an upwardly mobile businessman who walks the corridors of power.

By the end of the movie, over a decade later, having had enough of the revolutionary adventure, Siddharth leads a comfortable life abroad. Geeta has left her husband for rural Bihar. And Vikram, an apparent victim of circumstances, lives with Geeta.

Yes, the movie is a love triangle, and it seems to end with the good guy 'getting' the girl. But this is unsatisfactory. Firstly, this sort of apparent ‘feel good’ ending is not quite consistent with the rest of the movie. This movie is part of the New Bollywood where the good guy doesn’t need to be with the girl when the movie ends. To be sure, it is not a traditional ending with the couple living as a happy family. That awful ending is avoided because Vikram receives severe head injury while attempting to save Siddharth, at Geeta’s request, from the police.

But this victimhood/martyrdom by Vikram is even more problematic for me.

See in addition to a love triangle, this is a political drama. It is described as more politically aware by Outlook India in its dissection of Rang de basanti (more about that classic some other time). And for most part its politics is very much agreeable.

Its portrayal of the inquilaab inquilaab khel that a lot of rich kids enjoyed in the early 1970s is spot on. The scene where Siddharth’s friends get high on weed and dialectics reminded me of a scene in Shame where a scion of a feudal family enjoys a beachside picnic while discussing people’s liberation in Peccavistan. After the imposition of the Emergency (or martial laws in Pakistan and Bangladesh), these revolutionaries ended their adventure. Like Siddharth, many went overseas. Others joined the same establishment they swore to destroy.

Many did so, but not all. There were those like Geeta, who may not have been as true to the dialectics emanating from Moscow or Beijing, but who did stay in the villages. In the movie, Geeta’s efforts result in the social change so that Dalit girls can ‘no longer be raped with impunity’. Similar works by NGOs, derided as 'bourgeoisie feel good work' by Siddharth, have changed many lives for the better.

But for every life changed by the work of the NGOs, many more have been improved by economic growth. Put differently, the NGOs could not have achieved anything if economic growth had not generated wealth. To see this one has to only look at Africa. Charities and NGOs there have been no less active, but where is the result?

In the movie, Vikram could have represented the enterprising, wealth-creating section of Desh. At the beginning, he writes to Geeta that while all the rich kids want to get out (of the affluent life), he wants to get in. Halfway through the movie, he makes things happen. He organises the deal to turn an erstwhile royal mansion into a hotel. He meets a bespectacled balding 30-something neta. It’s not all easy sailing — his freedom fighter father is locked up during the Emergency. This was the story of many people. And most of them survived. The undeniable prosperity that is enjoyed by the middle classes in Desh today is a result of hardworking survivors that Vikram could have represented in the movie.

Vikram could have represented this Desi success story if he wasn’t portrayed as victim / martyr. But the movie didn't show Vikram as a success story. Instead, at the end of the movie, Vikram is either a victim of circumstances or a martyr for love.

But what is the political symbolism? Where is the acknowledgment that for all its flaws, the enterprising capitalism that Vikram could have represented is what will free Desh from ‘five thousand years of oppression’?

There are two possibilities. First, the ending has no political symbolism — if true, then quite a disappointing end for an otherwise fine political film. Alternatively, the ending denies the role economic growth plays, and portrays the middle class as victim of circumstances. If this is the case, then the ending panders to the same populist nonsense that was spouted by Pankaj Mishra.

A much better ending would have been to show Geeta, still in the village three decades on, reading letters from both Siddharth and Vikram, both establishment figures but with different attitude. That would have been truly politically aware.