A Bollywood Construction of Death
Indian society is as much enamoured with cinema as old the technology itself is. The best products of Hollywood were available in India way back in 1920’s. Till date, in a national sense, Indian cinema is deeply entrenched in terms of market domination (as high as 95%) as compared to non-Indian cinema. It is one of the most globalized art form yet we are the most rooted in this art form vis-à-vis our languages and participation. It is not accidental that the whole of India is so much attracted to popular cinema particularly Bollywood that it is almost beyond any caste and class-bias. It can be undeniably called as one of best agents of political socialization producing as much impact (if not more) on the society as other state-managed agents have done. A vast space left by various art forms like nautanki, ramlila, jatra etc. has been successfully embraced by cinema. It is integrated into the public culture of the land in a quite composite manner. Though it is not as organized and networked as Hollywood is yet its role in massification of culture cannot be underestimated.
But the area of cinema studies is not a very developed stream of knowledge in our country. The interdisciplinary focus of this area is yet to reach its desired level of expertise. The sociology of death in last six decades can be easily gathered from a representative study of our cinema. We aim to undertake a case study of three highly popular Indian films i.e. The ‘Hakikat’ of 1960s, the ‘Sholay’ (directed by Ramesh Sippy) of 1970s and the ‘Satya’ (directed by Ram Gopal Verma) of 1990s. If we simply focus on the treatment of death in these three films, it generates very interesting shifts in the public perception of death. A slight analysis of these films can easily reveal that the public conception of death has undergone a complete inversion. Death of the self as a moral choice in the first film is totally taken over by death of the other as the only path of existence in the last one.
All these films do have a historical context which catalyzed their making. It may be simply a commercial motive but we are more concerned in the type of sensibilities it catered to. The first film ‘Hakikat’ was a patriotic movie based upon 1962 Indo-China war. It was not an isolated film rather it was one of many such sacrifice-centered thematic films like ‘Hum Hindustani’, ‘Naya Daur’, ‘Purab aur Paschim’, ‘Do Aankhe Barah Haath’, ‘Jagriti’ etc. The idea of nation-building caught the fancy of film-makers deeply and these films turned out to be the best tools of political education. There was a sustained current of such sentimental films which valorized death particularly for the sake of country. The construction of heroism is quite straight-forward. In ‘Hakikat’, the hero is hero because of his commitment to saving the territorial integrity of his nation. No distinction is made between the state and the nation. The nation is presented as a simplistic monolith which is beyond any critical analysis. Its integrity and safety is the only motive for its citizens.
The irony of the situation was that despite dealing with the contemporary politics of the war, these were not political films because a general notion of political film carries a critical, dissenting or an alternative perspective. Of course, there were directors like Guru Dutt and Bimal Roy but they were very subtle in their political treatment. Theirs was a minor current of films which translated into perhaps, a genuine wave of political films in early 70’s with the beginning of auteur cinema or new wave cinema. The decades of 50’s and 60’s were more or less similar in their treatment of death in the popular cinema.
The development of public culture in 70’s faced a very unpredictable turn. It was a period when three five year plans had passed but the development of state apparatus did not change the true picture of Indian society. A kind of deep dissatisfaction was emerging in the masses. The counter movement by J.P. had started and the emergency was imposed upon the country for the first time. This was quite a contradiction to the popular mainstream feeling of the public. As the expectations from the modern nation-state were dying day by day, the notion of death was undergoing a serious change. Death was primarily a sacrifice in the first film ‘Hakikat’ which turned into a murderous existence in the final film ‘Satya’ but such a marked tilt was not sudden. It did have an interim phase which was quite intelligently accomplished particularly in the middle film i.e. ‘Sholay’.
The violence around dying can be both ambiguous and direct (as in ‘Apocalypso Now’ of Francis Ford Coppola and ‘The Blue’ by Krzysztof Kieslowski) but Bollywood churned out movies which only highlighted the directness and missed the ambiguity around it. There was a specific mode of construction of death in those decades. The ‘Sholay’ by Ramesh Sippy is a prime example of this tendency. It was a film which institutionalized the notion of revenge in Indian films. Of course, this was as simplistic as it was a decade earlier but the nation-state was markedly absent as the primary motivating agent. This vacuum left by nationalism was filled by a kind of wronged and mutilated individualism. This was again not an isolated film rather a wave of films like ‘Zanjeer’, ‘Deewar’, ‘Coolie’ etc. ‘Sholay’ was only an epitome of this trend.
This film has a dialogue which is the most repeated dialogue in the public memory of entire India i.e. the dialogues of Gabbar (Amjad Khan) delivered to his men particularly Kalia. The mockery of predicament right at the point of death is driven deeper by Gabbar through his playing the game of chance. India never realized that these dialogues entrenched a process of internalization of gambling mindset and justified violence. These dialogues are a perfect example of how the myth of Russian Roulette has assimilated into popular Indian mind. It can be assumed that the soul of kalia has percolated deep down in the citizen of Indian state. It is a kind of a terrified mass of people who don’t have any option other than obeying the commands of the state. The defiance means death and that too, an immediate death. The notion of Satyagraha was cleansed from the public memory. The force of sustained struggle was replaced with the power of vengeance and counter-violence. The concept of clean heroes was replaced with the heroism of the underdogs and wronged individuals. The state-system was turning into a non-responsive one for the masses and individual battles started possessing the public mind. The violence of suppressed anger turned into a reality on the screen. This film was definitely not a political film again but its politics was quite obvious. The public mood had changed and death was redefined by the filmmakers.
‘Sholay’ did not only have a socio-political context it also had a cinematic reference point. The emerging trend of making westerns in Hollywood was a strong influence behind its choice of faraway rural expanse. The gun-totting vagabonds were picked as it is from Sergio Leone’s movies. It had also borrowed a lot from the classic motion picture ‘Seven Samurai’ of Akira Kurosawa but the collective spirit of sacrifice and self-defense of the Samurai fighters was remarkably reduced into an individualized killing and revenge in this Ramesh Sippy’s feature.. To be appropriate, ‘Sholay’ was only a good mix of all successful box-office formulas. The duo behind its script ripped the best out of contemporary popular and classic cinema of the world and translated it into a fresh hybrid product. The commercial bonanza the film reaped, justified all the liberties taken with the literary and humanistic angles. The script-writing and plot-building got entrenched in a way where the cinematic forms got hijacked by the ‘star culture’ thus making the film and the Bollywood a chief instrument of promoting and legitimizing alienation as a way of life. Many other films of this trend share these themes but the image of ‘angry young man’ and brazen violence were the most important themes that dominated the public culture and Indian cinema for all times to come.
‘Satya’ is the last part in this reversal of theme series. It was released just around the end of the millennium highlighting the nature of times to come. These times were dominated more by the commercial confusion and bonanza of Y2K error and less by any global initiative for a sustainable and equitable habitat system. Again, it is a story of a young man who comes to Mumbai to realize his dreams but finds him suddenly gobbled up by the underworld. His search for a clean job nets him into a job which must be done only in a ‘clean’ manner. He has reached a point of no-return where only his death can free him of his destiny. He wants to live like a normal man, marry a girl of his liking and raise kids but his life is threatened by police as well as rival gangs. His life is a dead-end but his self is not dead of desires. His mind cannot harbour any second thought; if it has to live, it has to kill.
The director of the movie, Ram Gopal Verma is known to be close to underworld themes but again, his movies cannot be called political rather they should be called both anti-political and anti-life movies. He keeps frying these dead-end themes in the box-office pan without trying to touch the depth of psychological grounds the way it was done somewhat in ‘Maqbool’ by Vishal Bhardwaj. Mumbai underworld has been a much repeated theme in many other films made in last 15 years but most of such films share a closed and repetitive outlook. The kind of buck sadistic violence generates in this industry is more instrumental in Indian film factory. From the sacrifice of self to the slaughter of the other, Indian popular cinema is not a small story. What a kind of metamorphosis? Kafka would laugh at it.
Indian cinema could not create a big civilizational shift the way Coppola did from ‘The Godfather’ to ‘Apocalypse Now’ where death was transformed from an existential limitation to existential choice. Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), a gangster in ‘The Godfather’ prefers to die as a tribal war-lord (Marlon Brando again) of a remote Asian hinterland in ‘Apocalypse Now’. His choice of Marlon Brando for both the roles is quite symbolic. At both the places, death particularly in terms of killing remains the central theme but in the first film, Coppola remains a bit selfish in his treatment of death where godfather and his family’s survival is the main focus. In the world of ‘Might is Right’, Vito Corleone takes up murder as a matter of profession. He assumes the intactness of his family but finds that killing is always more than a business, it continues till it kills the killer oneself too but the other film portrays a totally different understanding of death in the character of Walter Kurtz, he shuns this selfishness even and embraces a pagan combination of primal selflessness and self-entrenchment. He realizes the artificiality of the difference between compassion and slaughter. He proclaims the true freedom i.e. the freedom from the opinion of others and embraces the sharp choices which such a freedom warrants. Violence and love both derive new meanings once the pre-conceived structures are detached from them permanently. Coppola began with an existential deadlock in ‘The Godfather’ but rediscovered himself in ‘Apocalypse Now’ in a realization that the basic question is not to survive in this strife-torn world rather it is to live by performing before death from moment to moment i.e. to choose a form of life which is not afraid of death and is devoid of any utopian fallacy.