Great cinema points out the ugliness in our society. 'Gabbar is Back' is the ugliness, says Ajachi Chakrabarti.
Gabbar is Back
Starring: Akshay Kumar, Shruti Hassan, Suman Talwar, Jaideep Ahlawat, Sunil Grover
Rating: 1/5 stars
Eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, eight hours for what we will.” The slogan of the short-time work movement in 19th-century Britain and America beautifully encapsulated organised labour’s larger vision for society: one that looked at workers as humans, not human resources. The “what we will” was key—a man was not his job, and the working man had the right to time allocated for his leisure, to do with as he chose. Whether he spent that time working to improve his lot in life or to drink himself to an early death wasn’t important; the choice to do so was.
It’s a principle the yuppies of our post-liberalisation economy would do well to remember the next time they’re whining about trade unionism or socialism or any other -ism that threatens the primacy of their interests in society. For all of modern capitalism’s promise of upward mobility, after all, the white-collar employee today works longer hours for stagnant wages with often non-existent job security, with little time for family and friends, making pathetic attempts at seeking that mythic idyll: work-life balance.
Of course, modern capitalism—especially the plutocratic variety that’s popular in the developing world—relies on the would-be-rich remaining utterly oblivious to the poor’s experience, and it’s unlikely that our consumer classes today would find much resonance in the demands of the American Federation of Organized Trade and Labor Unions, which in its 1884 and 1885 national conventions called for the eight-hour day to be made statutory by 1 May 1886. They would probably roll their eyes at being told that when employers and politicians refused to take the demands seriously, the unions retaliated with a nationwide strike, especially if you mention that the protests were led by anarchists. (The once respectable political ideology, after all, has become an epithet to throw at political opponents.) And I doubt they’d have much sympathy for those killed and injured in police firing on demonstrators at Chicago’s Haymarket Square on 4 May—which prompted the Second International to designate May 1 as International Worker’s Day—more so if they’d been exposed to the media coverage of the incident, which has been called America’s first Red Scare. In any case, I doubt such a discussion takes place much any more. Far from generating a national conversation on workers’ rights, May Day has become just another example of the tokenism prevalent in our society, just one more holiday, commemorated at most by a patronising Facebook status update.
Gabbar is Back panders to the privileged classes’ fears and insecurities, to their kneejerk conservatism, to their fantasies of a “meritocratic” state. The very people who will pontificate in the safety of their drawing rooms about how Naxalites are murderous thugs thought nothing of applauding a vigilante whose response to corruption is to abduct and publicly hang corrupt bureaucrats.
A depressingly high number chose to spend May Day morning—the second of a four-day weekend thanks to a statewide bandh on Thursday—watching the new Akshay Kumar movie with their families. Taken aback by the huge crowd for the usually empty morning show, I found myself tongue-tied at the box office, momentarily unable to recall the name of the damned film. “Gabbar?” the ticket-seller asked sardonically. “Khaali first row achhe.”
The composition of the crowd is relevant to understanding the film’s popularity. (It made Rs 39 crore in its first weekend, the best opening weekend for any 2015 film so far.) Although its protagonist is named after the villain in the favourite movie of generations of our working classes, Gabbar is Back is very much a multiplex movie—not for nothing is the first credit in the long title song that of Viacom18’s marketing head. It’s part of Bollywood’s latest film-by-numbers strategy: a remake of a violent South Indian film (in this case, AR Murugadoss’ Raamana, also remade in Kannada, Telugu and Malayalam), featuring a bankable star, with enough product placement, cross promotion and lucrative rights deals to make sure the studio makes money irrespective of the quality of the film. The crowd at the cinema where I watched the film was Gabbar‘s target audience: Salt Lake professionals and their families, college students, couples. A cross-section of the entrenched middle and upper classes, most of whom wouldn’t be caught dead entering a single-screen.
The composition of the crowd is relevant because Gabbar is Back panders precisely to this social group’s fears and insecurities, to their kneejerk conservatism, to their fantasies of a “meritocratic” state. The very people who will pontificate in the safety of their drawing rooms about how Naxalites are murderous thugs thought nothing of applauding a vigilante whose response to corruption is to abduct and publicly hang corrupt bureaucrats.
Akshay Kumar plays Aditya, college physics professor by day, leader of urban guerrilla movement by night. His group’s modus operandi is to work one government department at a time, compile a list of the ten most corrupt individuals in that department, have his people abduct them, return nine and execute the most corrupt. It takes only one murder to clean up the system—all of a sudden, government offices don’t accept bribes because they’re scared of Gabbar. The police are on the case, but of course, the officers leading the investigation are incompetent fools, who won’t listen to the one man who has ideas on catching Gabbar simply because he’s only a constable. That doesn’t stop Hawaldar Sadhu Ram (Grover), though; he takes a leave of absence to follow his master plan: to make a list of the most honest bureaucrats in the state and look for what connects them.
Again, the trope of the angry young man standing up to the corrupt establishment is an old working-class tale in Bollywood. The difference, however, lies in the specifics. For one, Bollywood’s angry young men rarely killed people, including the worst of villains; when they did, it was usually just the primary antagonist in a brutal kill-or-be-killed climax. Even Gabbar Singh himself was given a fair trial after the censor board objected to Sholay‘s original ending, which had Thakur killing him. This Gabbar, however, kills with impunity throughout the film, but his methods are never criticised. (Sure, he hangs in the end, but in full Bhagat Singh style, with the very policemen who chased him telling him he was right.) Nobody, not the police, not his fellow vigilantes, not even the wife and son of one of his victims, ever confronts him with the idea that death might not be the most appropriate punishment for corruption. Not even his girlfriend Shruti (Hassan, whose only job in the film seems to be to sing his praises), not even after she sees him abduct and hang a police officer. Instead, we have this paean: “Na yeh sarkaari hai, na gair kanooni/Na yeh neta hai, na koi terrorist/Kaam se hero, naam se villain/Yeh hai Gabbar.” Last I checked, killing people, no matter how corrupt they are, is still gair kanooni. And killing people with the intention of spreading terror among others is the precise definition of terrorism.
We have this paean: “Na yeh sarkaari hai, na gair kanooni/Na yeh neta hai, na koi terrorist/Kaam se hero, naam se villain/Yeh hai Gabbar.” Last I checked, killing people, no matter how corrupt they are, is still gair kanooni. And killing people with the intention of spreading terror among others is the precise definition of terrorism.
The other major difference is that the angry-young-man film looked at society from below. The big villain was usually the local bahubali looking to exploit some poor villagers/slum dwellers for personal gain. Rarely did any of Amitabh’s Vijays have the ability or the intention to challenge an entire institution, as Gabbar does with corruption. This film, however, is simply an extension of the old bourgeois drawing-room line about the best way to deal with the endemic corruption in our political class: “In sab ko line mein khada karke goli maar deni chahiye.” The effects of Gabbar’s reign of terror and the consequent end of government corruption are seen from the perspective of the privileged: ending corruption is good, because it means taxi drivers don’t have to pay bribes, so they can give you Rs 60 in change when you’re entitled to it. The only private entity targeted—in a great sequence that is by far the best thing about this film, one that won the loudest round of applause by this Kolkata crowd that must have empathised—is a private hospital, ruthlessly overcharging its patients in their hour of need. When people complain, they’re told to (shudder) go to a government hospital if they have a problem.
Aditya, a bourgeois vigilante leading a bourgeois posse, is clearly engaging in rebellion from above. “Aadhey se zyaada mantri anpadh hote hain,” he tells one bureaucrat who claims to have been following orders. It’s hyperbole, but he is not making the ludicrous claim that the majority of our ministers are illiterate; anpadh, usually followed by gawar, is a standard-issue Brahminical insult for someone who didn’t go to the right schools and colleges. The manner of deciding who dies—whoever has the highest numerical value of wealth siphoned off, not necessarily those whose corruption has caused another death—is the kind of absolutist, context-less definition of (de)merit our privileged classes would love to see in society. That, I suppose, is what this film has in common with the angry young men; at the end of the day, they’re pure escapism for a class of people that feels impotent in the present order of things. But again, this feeling of impotence is more illusory than real, born out of the insecurity that has intensified since the rise of the Mandal parties.
At one point in Chaitanya Tamhane’s brilliant Court, the public prosecutor and her family go to watch a play. A girl has brought her lover home to meet her dad. She tries to pass him off as Marathi, clumsily correcting him as he narrates his Bihari antecedents. Dad plays along, but once daughter goes off to get the tea, grabs the boy and his father by the scruff of their necks and kicks them out of the house to the loud cheers of the audience, prosecutor’s family included. It represents the quasi-fascistic society that she is part of, providing context to her lack of concern for the accused’s fate. That’s what great cinema does—raise a mirror to society and point out its ugliness. Bilge like Gabbar is Back is the ugliness.