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Purification rites with Gangajal
September 02, 2003
It's only fitting that a country, which boasts of the most films in the world, should have two avid moviegoers at its helm. For them too, like it is to the masses, watching Bollywood or Kollywood or Tollywood and other mostly no-good movies, is a brief escape from the oppressive reality of life in India.
The last movie the two viewed together, and it was a well publicised together, was Koi Mil Gaya, an Indian ET movie not very different from the Steven Spielberg hit two decades ago. KMG, like ET, is a heart-wringing story of innocence and fantasy confronting the petty oppression of a predictably insensitive and ham-handed state. That the prime minister saw it twice is understandable. Given his bird's eye perch from where one can see every reality, and where keeping them shut is probably the only way to preserve sanity and order, seeing a movie every now and then becomes the only contact with reality, however unreal that may be.
Now that Vajpayee and Advani are due for another well-publicised three hours together in a dark hall, I wish they would see Gangajal, the new Prakash Jha movie. Like Jha's first feature film, Damul, this is also set in the lawless Bihar countryside and has an age-old theme that is set in contemporary times.
Prakash Jha himself describes it best: 'Gangajal is a dramatic journey of an individual into the collective consciousness of the society. It eventually becomes an intense meditation on the mechanics of crime and punishment.' The mechanics of crime and punishment in the face of relentless populist pressures is a matter that confronts the deputy prime minister in particular, charged as he is with preserving order and enforcing the law at a time when the relentless onslaught of terrorists provokes outcries for quick and often extra-legal solutions. The enacting of POTA to facilitate convictions, and the ever-increasing frequency of 'encounters' with alleged terrorists show which way the reed is bending.
It was almost twenty years ago, but I recall Prakash Jha's first film Damul quite vividly. It won the Filmfare Critics award in 1984 and the sarkar's Lotus as 1986's best film. It was about exploitation in rural Bihar and had some incredibly good picturisation with a hand held camera following characters about, giving you the illusion of being passive part of the drama. In a way we were, as we still are. As I watched the movie, I was being constantly assured that this was how it actually was for I had with me an expert to fill me in on Bihari nuances and subtleties, which might have otherwise eluded me. The expert was Yashwant Sinha, just back from the 1984 hustings leaving behind his security deposit in Hazaribagh. He was till not long before that the head of the Delhi Transport Corporation, and there are many who believe till today that the tyre tracks pointed to politics as a last refuge rather than a calling.
Last week I saw Gangajal, Jha's most recent movie. He has gone down the muddy Ganga quite some way since Damul. The craftsmanship on show in that movie suggested a bright new star was going to be soon tacked on the firmament. But Gangajal has made it quite apparent that that is not to be. The realism of Damul is missing. Instead we have tacky sets, an apparent lack of attention to details, a patently absurd geographical backdrop that tells you what is on view is not rural Bihar. The film was mostly made in Wai near Panchgani because as Jha says: 'I had the whole place at my disposal for two months, so I thought of using it by recreating a small Bihar town there.' But he quite clearly failed in doing so. The all-pervasive griminess and sliminess of Bihar today are difficult to recreate.
Yet Jha manages to recreate the blackness of the soul and the bleakness that grips life in Bihar under the criminal-politician-police axis. As the former film critic of the RSS weekly newspaper, The Organiser, L K Advani would know a technically shoddy movie from a good one, but then so is KMG. Since that is not the issue, I would strongly recommend Gangajal, not just to him, but also to every one who reads this. Even in the plushest and coolest of movie halls the searing depiction of the sweltering oppression under a corrupt social system and a suborned State will not allow you to escape the reality of the outside world.
Jha conceived Gangajal in 1984 soon after Damul. It was provoked by the infamous Bhagalpur blindings of 1979, that scorched our consciousness when Arun Sinha 'scooped' it in The Indian Express of November 22, 1980 with a story headlined to catch all eyes: 'Eyes punctured twice to ensure total blindness.' It also had the picture of a blinded man. Though the same story had appeared on October 11, 1980 as '10 undertrials blame police for losing eyesight,' and related to a habeas corpus petition in the Supreme Court moved by the late Gobinda Mukhoty, it did not catch the nation's eyes as the next one did. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi called up Jagannath Mishra, then chief minister of Bihar, and told him she was 'sickened' by what she read and ordered him to take immediate action. On November 30, 1980 the Bihar government suspended 15 policemen and ordered an inquiry.
What happened was interesting. The people of Bhagalpur quite spontaneously took out protest marches supporting the policemen. Not surprisingly Jagannath Mishra quietly scuttled the inquiry, but not before saying 'the blindings had social sanction.' That the blindings will still have 'social sanction' is quite evident from the reverberating handclaps of an approving theatre audience when the cinematic criminals are picked up by the police to have their eyeballs punctured with a screwdriver and seared with battery acid to make doubly sure that sight can never be restored.
That such acts still have public sanction, and that the State still resorts to them as a salutary measure, is evident from the fact that a few alleged criminals were blinded while in police custody in Gujarat in February 1997. Now the police had improved on their methods. They used Tiger Balm mixed with chilly powder to obtain similar results. Presumably because this was less painful on the eyes and easier to stomach for a more squeamish, yet just as approving public. And then this is Gujarat, Gandhi's home state.
The deputy prime minister will not quite be able to appreciate the public mood unless he sees Gangajal in a regular movie hall full of common folk who plunk down hard cash to either escape from reality or give vent to their feelings. But I am quite sure his usual list of invitees will not react any differently. While some might be disturbed by the violence depicted, there is treat in store for all in Ajay Devgan's portrayal of the honest police officer. Devgan smoldering eyes and feline presence lights up the character of the main protagonist Amit Kumar, an SP determined to keep vigilante justice from corroding Constitutional justice, even as he battles a state taken over by rogues.
Now there is that other controversy surrounding the movie due to the umbrage taken by the followers of Sadhu Yadav, the brother of Bihar's chief minister, for Gangajal also has a Sadhu Yadav as its main villain. That Prakash Jha had the real Sadhu Yadav in mind when he gave names to his characters is apparent from his interview to Suhel Johar in the webzine Newsmakers.net. Jha says: 'It's a film about politics. It has strong political undertones. We have been seeing how the Congress has been playing electoral games. Sonia Gandhi taking a dip in the Ganges during Kumbh Mela amused me. It is also about the political struggle in Bihar. I am looking at hierarchical set ups.' This should leave no doubt about whom he was taking aim at. So why is Jha shying away from owning up now? Gangajal was made for a purpose. L K Advani will approve.Mohan Guruswamy