The Idea of Machismo

Mainland India’s phallic right over this piece of paradise continued to be emphatically portrayed, sometimes through emotive speeches, like in Roja, and sometimes through rhythmic lines, like “Doodh mangoge to kheer denge/Kashmir mangoge to cheer denge” in Maa Tujhe Salaam, writes Sayan Bhattacharya.

Another Independence Day went by… the usual flag hoisting ceremony at every school, club, housing complex, locality; the picnics; the serpentine queue at the butchers’, at the movies; the speeches; flowers and Lata Mangeshkar’s time tested Aye Mere Watan Ke Logon on every channel… However if I were to assign a particular marker to this year’s 15th August, then among all these constants, what would stand out is a show on CNN-IBN. With a grand jury and massive public participation, the channel pronounced the greatest Indian since Gandhi in a mega show (meaning a show with sound bytes from Madhuri Dixit and Salman Khan, artists belting out Hindi chartbusters, a reality show winning dancing troupe doing the patriotic routine and some speeches). While all these components are intrinsic to any celebratory show, what concerns me here is Rajdeep Sardesai’s choice of co-host, the star of all stars, Amitabh Bachchan. Amitabh talking about Indira Gandhi’s efficiency, Atal Behari Vajpayee’s poetic prowess and Rajdeep lapping it all up… the two of them discussing the nation, the nominees… and as if all this isn’t entertaining enough, to have Bachchan reiterate what he had invoked on his blog sometime back.

According to Big B, compulsory drafting of all citizens— above the age of 18, in the army, for at least 3 months to inculcate a sense of discipline in them— is the key to a nation’s progress. Not just that, he goes on to add that because our independence was achieved through indiscipline and unruliness (boycotting British clothes and so on), in post Independent India, we continue to adopt the same ideals of indiscipline in our daily lives, without realising the altered context. I could barely suppress a chuckle, hearing that. Bachchan’s voice segued into my mother’s… As a kid, one way to make me see her way was the threat, “Either you listen to me or I will send you to the Army Boarding School!” The very vision of me at the barracks (I had just seen the excruciating drills of army aspirants in Nana Patekar’s Prahar) was enough to make me see ‘reason’. The armymen were meant to be those fierce gladiators who protected you from known and unknown enemies. They were almost extraterrestrial in power, beyond established notions of law and justice; lesser mortals like me could only view them with equal measure of awe and dread. Then Roja happened, one 15th August (telecast on DD) to further embed these ideas.

The village belle trying to save her scientist husband from the clutches of terrorists at any cost… the army initially refusing to barter the scientist for a dreaded militant captured at the opening of the film… the scientist refusing to allow the Indian tricolour to be desecrated… the song Bharat humko jaan se pyara hain…and you had the perfect patriotic concoction for the independence day. Then as the years progressed, the JP Duttas and Anil Sharmas arrived with their throbbing BorderGadarIndian and so on. Each film dished out the same macro-narrative of nationalism, of how Pakistan is the duplicitous enemy forever trying to destabilize Hindustan, of how it is India’s military might that protects her from the neighbour’s clutches… then the honest Muslim cop or soldier character to offset all the Islamic terrorists (read traitors), who has to work doubly hard to prove that despite being a Muslim, he is a patriot. Add to that, the crown jewel Kashmir. Mainland India’s phallic right over this piece of paradise continued to be emphatically portrayed, sometimes through emotive speeches, like in Roja, and sometimes through rhythmic lines, like “Doodh mangoge to kheer denge/Kashmir mangoge to cheer denge” in Maa Tujhe Salaam. One broad brushstroke of nationhood to paint the entire country. No need to contextualise the conflict in Kashmir, no need to even give them voices… just the pristine nature that is India’s pride and that’s that and if there’s any scope for ambiguity, then show the odd Kashmiri (read Muslim) who has been temporarily deluded but in right time will come back to the nation’s fold – for instance Pankaj Kapur’s character in Roja.

However like with all winning formulae at the box office, this too reached a saturation point and Bollywood moved on to the next big idea. Note, today’s blockbuster Ek Tha Tiger has the Salman-Katrina romance as the focus while RAW and ISI are mere backdrops. Does that mean patriotism is passé?

Of course it isn’t. Or else why would a shockingly mellow Arnab Goswami interact with majors and jawans on the independence day and remember their supreme sacrifices for the nation? But increasingly the narrative seems to be that as the wheels of progress hurtle along and India finds itself a seat at the economic and security high tables, it is becoming more and more self assured and hence more potent. So it can afford to be benevolent towards the neighbour (remember how the wronged Veer, incarcerated in Pakistan, still continues to pine for Zara). Also the nation has learnt to wash away all sorrows and angst against the system with development – mobile phones, shopping malls, food chains and highways now bind Kashmir to the rest of India. And overseeing all this, is the State bolstered by the army. In fact even the state can fail but the army can’t. Today it not only secures borders and forests but it also roars against a corrupt polity… VK Singh offering a glass of water to Anna Hazare or sharing the dais with Ramdev is only an extension of that perception. Hence Big B is not stating anything ingenious, he is only echoing or reinstating a popular patriarchal idea of hegemony.

In this light Harud comes as a breath of fresh air… Rafiq’s brother is missing and probably dead, his father is going through post traumatic stress while his mother fiercely clings onto the hope that her elder son is alive. Rafiq lives through all this listlessly. He tries to cross the border but fails. Then he chances upon his brother’s camera and starts clicking. We see him smile. This is the Kashmir that is missing from our narrative…a Kashmir where the quotidian means negotiating the barbed wires, missing relatives, unmarked graves, poverty… Harud is a film that humanizes a people, their hopes and despairs…a film through an insider’s lens. (Interview with the director is here)

This doesn’t mean that this piece intends to demonise the army. It only intends to point out that the army is another cog in the wheels of a state just as the artist drawing political cartoons is or the environmental activist or the shift worker at the car plant is.

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