N Chandra’s trilogy is interesting because it interrogates the symbolic power of the image of the angry young man and yet manages to underscore its problems, says Soumabrata Chatterjee.The study of Bollywood has been around questions of spectatorship, the changing ideas of morality and censorship and studies in sexuality. This article is no different but it takes up a trilogy which sort of bridges two decades of film making that could not more dissimilar to each other. In doing so, it analyses this trilogy as micro-symptomatic of the macro-politics that seems to pervade Bollywood from the 80s through the 90s. What it attempts to do, is in fact try and extract a point about culture, anger, and censorship as it gets represented in this trilogy. The point itself is that of a descriptive category but it has speaks volumes about the kind of society and debates around sexuality that we have been locating in more popular sources. Let’s sully our critical lens a bit and witness the premonitions in what N. Chandra’s ‘dirty realism’ is all about.
The Rise of the Angry Young Man
The appearance of the film Zanjeer (1973) starring Amitabh Bachchan changed the texture of Hindi cinema in terms of what its hero can achieve on screen. The introduction of this category of the “angry young man” ripped through the figure of the swaggy romantic in the early years of Bollywood. It is important to contextualise its rise in the backdrop of India’s failure as a socialist economy. Corruptions were on the rise, and a culture of dissent was gradually brewing in the background, which was brought to the fore when Bachchan kicked open car doors and walked out with panache. While this trope existed through the next twenty years and subsequently created stars out of Nana Patekar, and Sunny Deol, and Sanjay Dutt, the political differences and methodological components diversified itself through them.
The “angry young man” trope didn’t start with the figuration of Amitabh Bachchan either. There was always Guru Dutt or Chetan Anand who kept on working around the idea of class struggle and the punctured dream of a socialist India. Their respective films Pyaasa (1957) and Neecha Nagar (1946) stand testament to the fact that social realism as a motif and a tool had already pervaded the Indian political imaginary.
What changed however was the figure of the rebel in all of these films till the 1990s. While Dutt portrayed an exhausted poet who is melancholic, Anand took upon the task of prefiguring a disjointed India suffering from the throes of a modernising process that went awry. Both of their films had characters, which are placed, at an angle with the society, and their credibility as films lay in the fact that the despair and hurt depicted on screen invoked questions of governmentality and the failures of the modern political state. But the figure and its enemy changed with the rise of Amitabh Bachchan and his revenge tragedy motif. What was a careful study of the production of violence and unequal distribution of capital across communities became a personal crusade. It was the need of the hour and Bachchan became a household name because of this phenomenon. The enemy was mostly an overseer, or an industrialist, or just some local goons. The culture of fist-fighting, and guns, and elaborate fight sequences began which posited a binary between the angry, hapless young man and his politically connected adversary. This kind of characterisation was prevalent through the decade and resulted in the revenge films of Nana Patekar (Krantiveer, Trishul) and Sunny Deol (Ghayal, Ghatak, Arjun Pandit). However, each of these films built their stories around structures of power and exploitation and a one-man rebellion trying to crush them all. The politics of hypermasculinity came quite strongly to the fore as the bloodied historiography of the angry young man scripted itself through interruptive stances. But while Bachchan remained to the core a radical socialist who believes in extreme corrective measures the characters essayed by Deol and Patekar often hinted at the rising mafia culture with the advent of the open-ended economy and globalisation in the 1990s.
Quite strangely then, N Chandra and his trilogy have to be placed in a liminal space connecting these variant forms of representation in the politico-social imaginary of the public. This trilogy is interesting because it interrogates the symbolic power of the image of the angry young man and yet manages to underscore its problems. Not all of it is conscious though there is an underlying tendency to be self-critical in the art of presenting a forced resolution to the event at hand. This event is a state of hurt, a state of acting awry, of pitting violence against violence. Hence, these films form an existential thread of being nowhere and yet trying to get somewhere. This act of trying to find an answer to a social problem ends in a violent restructuring of the order of socio-political reality. Hurt is thus a political category in itself, in that it becomes an “open wound” urging the subject to take the radical step, which often results in self-erasure. Anger is also a motivation here, but not in the form of mythic rage that Achilles possessed. Rage is not rudderless or aporetic here; it is motivated and directed at some original wrong that has resulted in an upheaval of the social order.
These three films result in different forms of deaths, both figural and literal, as the characters struggle to co-mingle with the terrible inhumanity that exists around them. In Ankush (1986) the four unemployed and good-for-nothing young men, find a political purpose at hand when their neighbor Nisha Singh is raped by her employers. It is the characters of Nisha and her grandmother who locate the possibility of change in them. It is the opportunity to accept a different way of life, of alterity, of radical possibility that is denied to them when she is brutally raped and she has to commit suicide. Within the filmic space, this originary wrong has to be redeemed and the film proves that the ‘law of the land’ is incapable of doing so. Hence the young men murder the perpetrators and happily face the death penalty at the end of the film. The gift of living differently is denied to them and Nisha and they exact revenge for that. They are rebels with a singular cause – to correct what has been erased from their social reality. In Pratighaat (1987) it is the woman who hacks off the local goonda Kali in the penultimate scene. In Tezaab (1988) N Chandra makes a curious turn as he depicts an in-love couple caught in different factions trying to gain an upper hand over the other. The film ends with the couple finally getting over their problems but not without an impediment. The hero loses his best friend to the dream of a better world.
The Politics of Representation in the Trilogy: Myth, Memory, Nation and the Woman
While there is a palpable sense of the city and the contemporary political culture working in the three films, there is also an understanding of how the developmental paradigms arising out of these two separate spaces do not wish to accommodate the idea of alterity. However, I am not trying to portray the characters here in terms of a universal ideal of vigilantism. While some of Bachchan’s and Patekar’s and Deol’s films can be seen as vigilantes working towards structuring a better society, these characters are basically nobodies who are suddenly dragged in the limelight by circumstances. In their everyday lives, they are a part of the middle-class heterosexual economy which suffers from despair, from cultural hegemonies, from unemployment but the violence that is enacted on them or their family members and friends brings out this element of alterity in them. While in the Bachchan films, there is often a tragic historical reason as to why these characters become such blood-curdling macho-like heroes (sometimes anti-heroes too like in Shakti) there is a contemporaneity as to why the characters from these films take up arms. This kind of contemporaneity can be located further in the gangster films of Sanjay Dutt (especially Vaastav). In Ankush, it is the violent rape of Nisha, which provokes the four young employed guys to commit murder. However, they are no custodians of justice before them. In fact, they can be termed as loafers (a Mumbai term meaning somebody who is up to no good) who just while away their time in random frivolity. It is Nisha who witnesses the transformative potential in them and in a song sequence (Itni Shakti Hume Dena Daata) even attempts to indoctrinate them in an element of religiosity. This woman is a normal workingwoman who represents the middle class aspirational figure who wishes to work hard for an honest living.
These characters are shaken from their bourgeois domesticity and sense of ‘being at home’ by the pernicious intervention of the nexus between the political syndicate and the local mafia.
In Pratighaat, it is the local goonda who is deliberately misnamed as Kali (the Hindu deity capable of murder and destruction) who rapes the lunatic Karam Vir’s wife Janaki and kills the husband of Durga who refuses to pay the hafta (weekly monetary bribes). He displaces the community of weavers and plunders everything that stands between him and his ideal state of things. He attacks Gopal Dada who stands opposite him in the elections. It is in this context that Laxmi (played by Sujata Mehta) who rises up from her college lecturer position, which demands from her an ethics of non-violence and tolerance and hacks off Kali.
In an interview, when asked about the strong feminist theme in his films, N. Chandra provides an answer, which is curiously protofeminist. He makes a gendered distinction, which results in the logic that women are warmer and somehow even then they can take up arms when it is necessary.
It is not an oversight when his women characters in this film all pertain to mythic figures. While invoking the mythic figure of the vagina dentata who results in the emasculation of the patriarchal symbol, he also tends to domesticate them in a context, which is ostensibly Hindu in its characters. The violence that is liberatory in this instance, which wards off other forms of earthly violence cannot be contained within the cinematic paradigm. It is something that jumps out of the screen and gains relevance in the politically charged mindscape of the viewer who watches the film. It is an invitation to revel in the retributive violence, which is legitimized by the mythic nature of the women figures. But it does not escape the mother/whore dichotomy, which often muddies such a formulation. Kali, the political goonda is misnamed because there has to be a Laxmi (curiously named) who rises up to the occasion and dethrones him and occupies that space of devotional paradigm, which can be thought of as supplementing through the stereotype of law as impotent.
Jyotika Virdi locates the transformation from the Bimal Roy film Madhumati to Pratighaat as something that is symbolic of the “depth of cynicism, the transformation of public life, and its representation in Hindi films”. In fact, the element of contemporaneity that I was pointed out earlier is visible here. It is that the cinematic time and the politico-social time are concurrent in this trilogy. Social realism can be felt here in the mud and blood streets of Mumbai, with terror silencing the voice of dissent in every nook and corner of the city. But the politics of recuperation that arises from his lawless land, something that suspends law itself, is not a thing of transcendence but that of transference. The woman is invoked as a call for arms figure only to be located in another Hindu law pattern. The law gets suspended here to be founded in another parallel reality. In fact the disrobing scene is depicted in real time (not implied) and yet it carries the resonance of Krishna coming to the rescue of Draupadi by providing her an endless yard of cloth. Here the disrobing occurs as a white silhouette on a film negative background. And at the end of it, the lunatic who is again curiously named as Karam Vir (literally bringing together ideas of Karam which means decisive action and Vir which means courage) covers her in the national flag to hide the lajja (shame). This shame does not issue from the real physical violence meted out to the body of the woman and the female sexual autonomy. Rather it arises from this sense of nationalist hurt which is directed at the impurity that the body of the woman-heroine (a symbolic derivative of the Bharat Mata) has to go through. Her body has been defiled in the film as in Ankush and that is why the law of the land which is in itself thought of founding itself on patriarchal dominance and hegemony cannot supplicate her memory. When she returns to her classroom, she finds nude drawings on the blackboard. There is an implication here that an irreversible wrong has been enacted, which has shaken the teacher-heroine who stands for non-violent means. Hence she has to transform, leave her ideals and occupy the role of the executioner and that forms the shock-value of the film. As Madhu Jain writes in India Today, “When Laxmi (played by Sujata Mehta), the rather sweet teacher – bindi, plait, nice sari, the girl-you-can-take-home-to-mother – hacks the poilitician-goonda (played to perfection by Charan Raj), with an axe in Pratighaat, the spectators’ gut approval is disturbingly tangible. And when she puts her foot, Durga-like on the stomach of the slayed demon-politician, she enters the realm of the mythical. The audience is charged at an even deeper level.”
It is no surprise that the local goonda derives a feeling of indifference from the major portions of the society, be it Laxmi’s students, or her husband. The idea is that the commons or the public of our society is extremely ineffective in participating in the culture of dissent. There is a deliberate ploy to force the audience into a guilt trip, to trigger the collective conscience, which is thought of as defunct. The people witnessing the disrobement were just stunned bystanders engaging in a voyeuristic gaze. This perfectly mimics the cheerharan scene (disrobing) of Draupadi with the rich and powerful political figures sitting in silence along with the blind king. The juridico-ethical framework seems to be on its last breath, and that is the reason why the mythic figure of Kali has to be invoked in the personality of Laxmi. But this is also the dilapidation of the welfare society where the voice of protest is silenced by a show of physical violence.
Censorship is real, bloody and pedantic here. There are no nuanced semantics involved, no metalanguage of violence, no grand scheme of globalization and the postcolonial nation. I am not suggesting they are absent but that they have been deliberately invisibilised and that is a political stance by the director himself.
In distinguishing between the Bachchan heroes and his rebels, N. Chandra suggests that there is of course a demi-god status that is attached to the former, which is explicated, by his superhuman strength and potency. But his heroes or heroines are ‘ordinary yet extraordinary’ in their potential to agonistically gnaw at the systematic violence carried out in the streets every day. The space of counter-violence is also important here. The scenes of killing and fighting are all in the open spaces; the visibility that it granted to them implies the sympathetic response of the audience who will cheer for them. The violence has to be that of a public nature. And this again directs us to the private-public dichotomy, which has surreptitiously pervaded the question of the female autonomy.
The trilogy features working women who have dared to make an honest living for themselves. They have portrayed the courage to move out of the private-ness of their homes and they are strong, independent women who can participate in the politico-sexual economy of public spaces.
It is this business-like aberration, linked to questions of money and profit that prompts the patriarchal figures to forcefully domesticate the women into subjection. But there is of course an element of nationalism introduced into the scene via the figure of the retribution-seeking woman and the inspector turned lunatic Karam Vir. When Karam is killed by Kali, his daughter runs to him, screaming “Bapu .. Bapu” and Virdi locates in this short powerful scene the coming together the figures of Mahatma Gandhi and the father (the originary law according to psychoanalysis) and their collective failure (Virdi 57). It is not only a defeat of the Gandhian principles but also a hypermasculine rejection of the father-figure who is generally regarded as the guardian of the society. Hence the woman emerges as the mythic reincarnation, of a time and memory lost to our modern selves and the concept of justice, which is almost pre-modern.The trilogy represents an arc of consummation of different modalities of justice comingling together in the filmic space. While the originary violence, be it rape in Ankush, or molestation in Pratighaat, or the exhibitory use of the sexual potential of the body of Mohini (played by Madhuri Dixit) is corrected/redeemed by an act of counter-violence, N. Chandra shows these characters submitting to the institution of law even after that. Tezaab is a curious case-study in this respect not just because it is thematically very different from its predecessors but it also marks a shift in the directorial vision too.
While there were no Bollywood-like songs in the first two films made on a low budget and featuring no stars at all, Tezaab is more like a Bollywood masala film. Employing the age-old concept of two lovers being estranged due to societal circumstances, it fine-tunes the modality of sexuality and censorship as opposed to the previous two films.
This is partly because Mohini is presented as this glamorous diva hopelessly caught between her greedy father and a local goonda. But there is also an element of transgression here because while his previous central women characters are quite traditional in their bourgeois private homes, it is the forced visibilization of Mohini as a dancer-girl which shakes the moral-ethical stance of the viewer who is used to witness a different kind of body politic before. Here Mohini comes off as an active desiring subject and this is prefigured in the superhit song “Ek do teen..” which simply narrates the tale of a woman waiting for her lover. While her father and the goonda forces her to dance in order to earn money and become a subject who can only achieve the state of ‘being looked-at-ness’, it is her vibrant sexual potency that shows her to be in command over the people who are looking at her body. It is a curious case of the reversal of gazes, or at least the play between them that brings up the contested spaces of sexual-textual politics in the film. The hero Munna/Mahesh (played by Anil Kapoor) is a NCC cadet turned loafer-like figure who moves through the film haunted by the scenes of the murder of his parents. His friend, Baban (played by Chunky Pandey) is the loyal accessory to all his petty crimes and his attempt to fight off Lotiya Pathan in order to save Mohini and finally dies for him. This instance of homosociality does not disturb the heteronormative relationship of Mahesh and Mohini as he dies in order to secure the potency of the latter relationship. But this is a motif that returns in Tezaab after Ankush where the four unemployed men form a cohesive homosocial whole and finally goes to the gallows together.
This kind of street realism, made in low budget, employing differential camera techniques, breaks through the popular narratorial strategies of mainstream Hindi cinema that has the hyper-macho man saving the woman and beats up twenty guys at once.
Madhu Jain correctly calls it “dirty realism”; it is guttural, pernicious, and depicts a harsh, unforgiving reality without any instance of hope. Even though Tezaab is a distinct departure from his earlier films in terms of stylization, and representation it still represents the underbelly of the society, which has drugged itself to dreams of stability and rampant modernization. The nepotism between the local mafia culture which signifies power in a staunchly masculinist manner and the electoral politics which is reduced to farce reveals the country in a state of turmoil even after thirty years of independence. It moves towards the open-economy system and globalising forces, which could have been thought of as messianic when it was conceptualised in the 80s but now in retrospect we understand the deeper failings of such a hope. It is in this retrospectal glance that we grasp the political valence of the trilogy, which shows the country in the throes of a modernity that has been imposed on it.
The uneven indigenisation and the impotent political culture saw the Indian dream fail. But this failure is not shown in these films in the committee rooms, in the politburo meetings, in the party offices, but rather in the streets where people carry out their regular jobs.
This production of spatial contexts of violence seems to be in mocking disparagement with the welfare system and the promise of a better future and a self-determining political structure.