September 11, 2001


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Saisuresh Sivaswamy

Nayak vs Khalnayak

If only politics were so simple as film director Shankar makes it out to be in his Hindi movie, Nayak: The real hero!

The film is Shankar's latest work of art, but can it be termed his finest? To me, as a longtime watcher of both the director's works as well as the way politics is played out in the real world, the director is guilty of passing off his naivete to his audiences, trying to take advantage of the widespread revulsion at the way of the politicians. At best, in his defence, it can be said the director's intentions are not to blame: as a practitioner of his art, he has attempted to mirror -- in his political trilogy that started with Gentleman and ended with Indian/Hindustani -- the reality around him.

That's perhaps how it should be, art mirroring the real word and all that. Take his first film, Gentleman, starring Arjun. There has been a subterranean resentment in Tamil Nadu against the mindless, caste-based reservation system enshrined there, and the film attempted to spin an entertaining tale around it. The next, Kaadhalan, with the India Rubber man Prabhu Deva in the lead, showed the gubernatorial shenanigans in a democracy -- and it was so obviously a mirror of the times then that an explanation was not even necessary. Both the movies portrayed the venality in the system, but didn't offer any solution. Violence there was plenty, but as a byproduct, not solution.

That was left to the last of the trilogy, Indian aka Hindustani in Hindi, starring Kamal Haasan in an amazing dual performance. Indian's message was direct, and chilling. If the system is corrupt, kill those representing the system. Even if it is of one's own blood. If the film was a superhit, it wasn't entirely on account of thespian abilities of Kamal Haasan or the music score. The central message in the film struck home. And it cannot be discounted simply because the movie-going public did not go around killing corrupt officials.

Violence, however, finds no place in a democratic polity. Power may flow from the barrel of a gun elsewhere, but in India it has always been the ballot that has mattered, however deep the disgust with those who rule our destinies. Shankar, one dare says, was faced with the criticism that the message in all his three political movies was escapist in nature, however popular it may be. He had to then resort to course correction, in order to show the reality as it was in India, not how he wished it to be. Ergo, Mudhalvan/Nayak.

Even here, he has taken the easy way out. The young educated man who becomes chief minister for a day and later for the full term, is shown to draw the bulk of his counsel from the previous CM's personal assistant. Cronyism, anyone? There is not a mention of the 300-odd, upright, incorruptible, elected representatives who must surely form the backbone of the new party that has been voted to power -- who are they, where did they come from, how did he finalise their names? Instead, mention is made of the political novice's youth, his determination to clean up the system, his drive, his education -- as if these alone are qualities that can deliver us from evil.

Shankar should know that while these are welcome qualities in an elected representative, they are not going to make a difference to the quality of administration if the government at large -- and this percolates down to the grass roots level -- remains unchanged. And such deep-seated change is not going to be wrought in a week, month, or even a year. Firing bureaucrats in full glare of television cameras may make for an entertaining movie, but nothing beyond that. Governments are not run in the presence of news reporters; if it were, then the Press Council of India may well move into 7 Race Course Road.

Whether chief minister or prime, one man has never brought about change. It has been proven time and time again in the Indian context that while a new chief executive shows the determination and drive to break with the past, ultimately it is the system that triumphs, it is the system that wins. A cynical view? Maybe. But realistic, it certainly is. If at all Indian democracy holds out one valuable lesson, it is this: no ruler in a democracy is going to succeed fighting the system. S/he will have to work within the system in order to wreak the changes that matter.

Shankar need not look very far for illumination. He cannot have been all that young to not remember 1984/85 when, in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi's assassination her son Rajiv was voted prime minister by a landslide vote. It was as much a vote for change as it was against the politics of the past. In the heady days of his honeymoon, he was a man who could do no wrong -- even as he dismissed the country's foreign secretary in a televised press conference. Even when he glossed over the communal carnage that followed his mother's assassination the nation's conscience was not seared. We were so taken in by his youth, freshness, and yes, education. He spoke English, wore good clothes, was impatient for change -- just like Shankar's protagonist in Nayak.

And when Rajiv railed against powerbrokers et al, there must have been few in the country who did not egg him on -- and the dissenters were all within the Congress party, not outside. Yet, when the first whiff of financial irregularity scorched him, it was in the same system which he had rubbished months earlier that he now sought refuge in. So much for change, Mr Shankar.

Why just 1984/85, what about 1989, when the other messiah who promised change set himself up as the alternative? In this case the honeymoon did not last even one year, before the very system that the new prime minister promised to reform struck back. Since then, the Indian electorate has become very discerning, and is naturally sceptical of those who promise a quick fix, a la Shankar's heroes. The director realises the solution he offers in his movies can only go this and no further, which is why at the end now he has had to resort to chicanery to eliminate his rival.

If only real-life solutions were as simple, India would be a paradise by now. After all, these has been no dearth of either guns or the desire to use them in the country. Or, even politicians who make for excellent targets, a la Shankar's movies.

Shankar, messiah or false dawn?
Anil Kapoor: The Nayak

Saisuresh Sivaswamy

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