Sunday, April 3, 2011

Good Onions, Bad Onions

 Before we start, my friend/colleague Gautam Valluri from Broken Projector and I have instituted a simple-minded, caught-in-a-time-warp film e-journal called Projectorhead.  Endorse it through your readership of it.

No One Killed Jessica (2011)/ Rajkumar Gupta

In one of the crucial scenes in the recent Hindi film release No One Killed Jessica, as the possibility of ‘justice’ in the fashionable Jessica Lall murder case that is the subject of the movie dwindles consistently, the door bell rings. The owner of the door, Meera (television journalist modeled on who else, Barkha Dutt) opens the door and discovers that someone has left a parcel in her mailbox. When she exposes the contents of the package on a center-table inside her home, it is revealed that it contains a tape. She plays it, and with a smug smirk discovers that on it is the audio recording of the supposed killer’s confession of his supposed crime. 

Now, Meera is presented in the film as the model journalist – the single embodiment of the popular Indian myth of the journalist who will ‘stand up’ against the wrong and advocate integrity and fearlessness in the face of blatant injustice. Her status in the film as the utopian journalist however, does not burden her with the basic responsibility of her vocation i.e. the verification of her information source – the credibility anonymous assistor. Instead, we discover that in the next scene, she carries the smug smirk to her news studio, gets the technician to broadcast the contents of the tape on a national platform such as her resident news channel and even goes to the extent of attributing the voice on the tape to the supposed killer (who has been granted acquittal by the court in the same case) and declaring him, in front of the millions who presumably form the audience for her ‘news’ show, the killer and then provoking them to take ‘action’ to reverse the wrong.

 It doesn’t matter to her that the basis on which she conducts her personal kangaroo court - the audio recording - is not identified as submissible evidence within the Indian Court of Law. Or that the person she so gratuitously implicates can sue her for slander or defamation, and in most probability, win easily. Sadly enough, such factual misgivings in a film ‘based on real events’ is only the least of director Rajkumar Gupta’s film’s problems. 

To desecrate fiction for foregoing logic in order to tell a good story is an exercise in futility. Gupta cannot be implicated really for moving on hastily to the meaty parts of the story – the parts in which the underdog finally starts giving it to the ostentatiously powerful opposition. But Gupta’s film is not a sports film. It is not centered around a seemingly impossible sporting conquest or at a rather literal level, a physical struggle between two ill-matched (sets of) athletes where the lesser comes out on top. It is a film about a much larger social condition. It is about vulgar power whose precise source is invisible, but whose repercussions are paradoxically, omnipresent, and how it renders the average citizen helplessness through its sheer magnitude. It is the struggle between an individual and the system which she constitutes – and that type of struggle can never really be a boxing match.

The Jessica Lall murder case is not symptomatic, as popular notion may lead us to believe, of the upheaval of the powerful elite by the middle-class citizenry, but of the sheer comic absurdity of the condition in which an average citizen conducts his life in our nation. Gradually, as the citizen trains himself in the Indian manner of existence, the initial dissent and its resulting frustration is soon replaced by a glum acceptance of his situation. Eventually, he acquires a peculiar self-awareness of his own situation; a quality that enables him to survey his own condition objectively. Enabled to perform this act of putting his own existence under surveillance, he cannot help but be amused by the wholly odd nature of his daily suffering – he cannot but locate humour in his misery. 

Daily lives of middle-India offer such glorious instances of absurdist humor all the time, especially in a state of transit. In a state, for instance, of compressed humanity on the daily metro ride, where hundreds pack into a space meant for twenty and simulate the penultimate stage of a stampede, it is not uncommon to hear someone crack a smart one about how the people inside the compartment resemble ‘onions in a government godown’, or how the ‘poor metro will resign because of work pressure’. The wisecracks are admittedly funny, and you laugh along. The average Indian citizen learns how to. 

Faced with the endlessly mysterious object, lovingly referred to in societal circles as the ‘system’, that he does not have either the time (he has to earn his daily bread) or the prowess to comprehend, the citizen equips himself with humour to compensate for a general state of listlessness. The humour is, however, not a symbol of genuine amusement as it is of absolute helplessness. It is not as if the average citizen does not realize that there is something amiss if travel back and forth each day entails near-suffocation, but over the years, he has realized the futility of ire as a response. In order for ire to be effective, you need someone to direct it at. But in the case of Indian middle-class existence, there is a lot of wrong, but no one to blame it for – except, ofcourse, vague notions such as that of the ‘powerful politician’, ‘corrupt bureaucrat’ or in extreme cases, ‘the system’. There are no definite villains, like there are no definite heroes, and even if one may seem for a moment heroic, it is not wholly implausible that he/she may only have stumbled upon that heroism accidentally. 

In the classic American film All The President’s  Men, made three years after the event of its subject, the Watergate Scandal, the ‘villain’ is never visible. It is never manifest in a material form, or in an ontological reality i.e. recorded on film. Your foreknowledge permits you the luxury of the awareness that the investigation by Bob Woodward and Edward Bernstein brought down Richard Nixon regime, and yet, the film never implicates Nixon – infact, it does not implicate anyone at all. It does not pinpoint the centers of villainy and then setup our two leads against them, but through a simple-minded factual retelling of the events of the investigation, reveals how absurd the nature of the larger monster is. It is a film that believes that the occasion of the Watergate scandal is one of social mourning, or a tragedy, and not one of individual victory. Woodward and Bernstein are not heroes who cause the upheaval of an entire government, but typical everymen who have accidentally gotten embroiled in a nexus whose tentacles spread beyond the scope of their personal vantage points. Throughout the film, they are scared for their lives, always looking over their shoulders, and dwell in a state of eternal suspicion. They are as destructible as a package full of certain evidence. The film does not end on a celebratory note, because it is remarkably insensitive to locate celebrity in the event of a social casualty. Like there are no villains, there are no heroes.

The art of a country may or may not directly mirror its attitudes, but it must seek to summarise them. It is the responsibility of a society’s artist to comprehend the condition in which its average member conducts his existence. Such understanding of human life around him should then nurture and inform his work.

If the measure of the artistic merit inherent in a work is its relevance as posterity declares it, then the most urgent role of an artist is that of the documentarist who documents life in the era of which his work is a produce of. The artist is thus the preserver, who through his art, makes a statement on the nature of his most immediate surroundings – one that will inform the generations of the future about their ancestors in the present, and through it, perform an action of permanent preservation. It is imperative, thus, that art does not become subservient to populist tendencies that demand the establishment of an alternative reality, one that exists in vacuum – in  a mythical realm in which wishful fantasies manifest, but no authenticity does. Because alternative reality is, as its name suggests, an alternative to reality, and thus, it does not hold any real worth to posterity, because it does not preserve within itself any insight into an erstwhile existence.

No One Killed Jessica is a film that, through the prism of perhaps the most renowned legal exercise in the country’s recent existence, claims to be about a decade in the life of an enormous society – but it is, as a lot of Bollywood films are – an affirmation of the aspirational yearning of the typical middle-class viewer who constitutes the audience for these films. Like many other films of its type, its promotional material is bound to contain epithets like ‘realistic’, ‘hard-hitting’, ‘edgy’ – but its real nature is that of a fantasy. It declares its centers of heroism as easily as it does its centers of villainy, and unlike in ‘real’ life, there is no absurd ambiguity anymore. We know exactly who to point our fingers at, who to root for, who to jeer against, and which side to take in general. 

In the third scene itself, that shows the infamous murder – which in itself is shot callously like how a sleek Korean gangster film director shoots his antagonists dying, with bodies falling in slow motion and blood sprawling across the screen like calligraphic characters – the ‘villain’ is declared through strictly identifiable codes. He is surrounded by cronies who speak in a crude accent, misbehaves with women-folk, and does not blink an eyelid before passing lewd comments at them. Moreover, the director shoots him in sinister looking close-ups with distorted lenses, and provides the whole scene with a background score that seeks to enhance the intensity of the scene. As if the act of a human pointing a gun at another is not intense enough inherently. Later on in the film, the scenes featuring the politico father of the ‘murderer’ are always accompanied by a leitmotif that announces to us the generally ‘evil’ nature of the characters who inhabit the scene, and each line he mouths is sinister and ‘evil’ sounding. One of his cronies digs his nose, drills his ear with his fingers – thereby pasting even more redundant crudeness to the whole exercise of the murder, in case you didn’t already notice. The audience is bludgeoned with the awareness of who the ‘villain’ is – who the subject of their derision should be.  It is a film that is really a boxing film, but presented in the garb of a ‘realistic’ political thriller. 

This garb is the Hindi mainstream film industry’s most effective device. A film like No One Killed Jessica is really nothing but children’s fantasy, but it can pretend to be a ‘serious’ issue-based film, purely because its makers comprehend the perpetual level of gullibility in which middle-India spends its existence. The middle-class Indian is a remarkably docile, unquestioning and passive being – forever prepared to comply or compromise – he will humour himself and others around himself about the jam-packed metro compartment, but he will never raise a direct voice against it. Instead, he will patiently await someone who can take up the cudgel for him; someone who can take up his cause for him. 

So a random god-man can claim the ability to heal all our diseases and we will go along, a mediocre cricketer can tell us which brand of insurance to purchase and we will go along, a cosmetics company can tell us to our faces that we are hideous - that we need its product to look presentable and we will go along. It is because the emblematic Indian middle-classer is always looking to be told – to be informed of a greater truth by ‘reliable sources’, because as he has been led to believe, these ‘sources’ know better. Therefore, No One Killed Jessica can play directly to the gallery – it exploits its awareness of the general listlessness of the average member of its audience. 

It is a film, like many other Bollywood films, that knows how seeped in absurdist chaos the Indian existence is – how devoid of well-defined moral centers, villains or heroes - and yet, it does not seek to comment, encapsulate or in braver cases, confront this farce. Instead, it bypasses this confusion altogether and like any other artifact of bad pop-culture, compartmentalizes chaos into distinctly labeled pieces of information. Its comprehension of its subject - the Indian society - does not result in a film that is about its reality, but about a reality that it aspires to. One in which we not only know what is wrong, but also have someone to blame it for – just like in the movie, where the middle-class’s vague notions about who its criminals are – the politician, the bureaucrat, the system – get solidified into actual persons. So the audience member who spends his life in not knowing who to blame now has someone to consider his ‘villain’. If it isn’t a fantasy, what is? 

If Bollywood is to establish itself as a presence in the lives of its audience that transcends the primitive relationship of a vendor-customer, and occupy more than a mere superficial relevance in them, then it needs to be express earnest interest in them. If it must use ordinary Indian existence as its subject, then it should engage it as a prospect of art, and not a prospect of commerce. And it is not the job of art to offer an unequivocal stance on an issue or to promise a solution – art is permanently doomed to suffer in the same state of puzzlement as its subject. 

In the penultimate scene of the Hindi film classic Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, the businessman, the journalist and the policeman rendezvous in the backstage  of a drama hall as our two ‘heroes’ celebrate their victory over injustice . We never hear what they talk about, or the nature of their exchange; what we do know is that in the last scene, it is the heroes who have been implicated and put into jail. That is how absurd daily life in India is.

1 comment:

  1. I remember watching Nishikant Kamat's "Dombivali Fast" and the most gutting feeling you get from that film is that the main character, who goes on a breakdown rampage after he has 'had enough', acts just in the same way that one would likely act upon what they watch in a Bollywood movie; he picks out certain people in his life (a water pump attendant, a soda clerk, the head of a bank, a politician) who are usually the embodiment of that ambiguous evil that Bollywood loves to represent them as. It is in the hospital scene where a man finally confronts him and asks "Who are you fighting?" and that is the tilting point of the story. It's a remarkable film and while it takes a lot from Schumacher's "Falling Down", it is far superior to that movie and really embodies itself in the irony of India's middle class and the absurdism of what Bollywood likes to 'teach' people when it comes to politics.