If you can sell social conscience, and you can sell it well, that’s a tempting marketing strategy. You can end up seducing and subverting it also, extremely nuanced and sensitive no doubt, but you can still be found out. Was Aamir Khan found out?
Was Aamir ‘thinking’ about it, an out-of-the-box marketing whiz kid as he is known to be, when he made that eloquent high moral ground speech and sang that ‘patriotic’ Lagaan song at Ramlila Ground with a pleased Anna Hazare and ‘good chum’ Arvind Kejriwal in the backdrop? Or was he simply testing the Three Idiots mobile numbers close to his yesterday’s muscular Ghajini chest, fiddling with the political subconscious of a vociferous, eclectic crowd, rewriting the invisible script through the Bharat Mata ki Jai wave, captured and manufactured non-stop on 24/7 television? The second freedom struggle!
“As I write this, I wonder, will Gujarat’s ad brand ambassador from Bollywood join Modi’s “five star circus”, as dancer Mallika Sarabhai described it so beautifully.”
No one knows. But he did it once in the past, and succeeded stupendously, some years ago, in the cruel summer of 2006, when Medha Patkar sat on an indefinite fast in the open-to-sky footpath at Jantar Mantar, leading the gutsy, resilient, stoic women of the Narmada Valley and thousands of displaced, pushing the threshold of the binaries with Narendra Modi’s Gujarat government at one end, and the rigid and wily market fundamentalists in Delhi, all of them in tacit alliance with muscle-flexing Modi’s big dam Gujarati asmita.
Aamir joined the fast in solidarity, even while he backed Shabnam Hashmi’s NGO, Anhad, in Delhi, which was sponsoring the education of traumatized children of the Gujarat genocide. This reporter met him then in the early hours at the Anhad office in central Delhi. His political knowledge paradigm seemed restricted, but he seemed genuine in his concern and compassion. “Don’t ever lose hope,” he told the kids.
Actor Rahul Bose too arrived at Jantar Mantar. He was low profile and seemed authentic. He already knew several of the village girls and women from the Narmada valley; he had gone to the submergence zone and lived with them earlier. There was a march from Mandi House. Rahul took along some of them in his taxi, in solidarity, hanging out at the demonstration. He had to catch a flight so he was rushing off to the airport. Half-way during the protest march, I saw him marching, shouting slogans, very happy to be there. What happened? “I cancelled my flight,” he laughed.
A few days later, superstar Aamir Khan entered the choc-a-bloc Narmada protesters’ camp at Jantar Mantar, with much hidden turmoil and angst among activists from all over the country, including from Plachimada, over his coke ads. “So how come he will back NBA, and sidetrack the Plachimada struggle against the coke plant, which has ravaged the ground water systems in the area, leading to protracted struggles?” Activists shouted slogans. It became tense. The cops and the tamasha crowd which had collected became tense. Aamir too seemed unnerved. He seemed so transparently innocent.
What’s going on? What’s Plachimada?
Consequently, he reportedly promised to study the ‘issue’ thoroughly, as he does with his ‘non-conformist’ scripts and storylines with such meticulous detail. He almost tacitly stated that he will not betray the call of his conscience. Medha seemed ecstatic. A very famous writer-activist then told this reporter at a pavement tea-stall on the spot, “If he backs the Plachimada struggle, I will say Aamir Khan zindabad. But we will keep our fingers crossed.”
Predictably, as it happens when celebrities endorse or not pretend to endorse, there was a scintillating debate in the celebrity obsessed media. The coke found its fizz in ‘popular’ media imagination. Even negative publicity is good publicity, and this was all for free, uncorking magical, hidden fuzzy ingredients, yet another mysterious, forever undisclosed formula of the dark, tangy, sweetened water: coke magic, anti-gas, pro freedom.
Finally, much later, it happened. Freedom. Anti-gas. This was a master stroke. Aamir Khan appeared in a stoic ad, dressed in a white shirt and blue jeans (if I remember correctly); near a coke manufacturing plant, picking up a bottle and saying that he has rediscovered the truth. Coke is the drink to drink. He said categorically, with no pretension of nuance: Enjoy!
Chilled. In every metaphorical advertising symbolism used in the subliminal semiotics of thirst and the quenching of thirst, or the longing to be part of this imagined realm of instant fulfillment of thirst, the perfection of the symbol as a market product, and the best-selling of that thirst as a subverted socially conscientious act, well, Aamir had done it. A documentary filmmaker had then cryptically remarked, “This was brilliant. He lifted the media created hyperbole of a local resistance, and turned it into a superb not-so-frozen, cool marketing strategy. Thanda matlab Plachimada! Chilled.”
Drop drop drop.
It remains in the realm of conjecture if the successful actor and ad-seller actually ever chose to read all the painstaking documentation on the Plachimada struggle. Or, if he was ignorant that apart from a large mass of ordinary citizens and youngsters genuinely protesting against corruption, a huge chunk of the crowd at Ramlila Ground was ritualistically RSS sponsored, or that India against Corruption and Team Anna’s leadership had ‘allies’ sponsored by RSS, Ford Foundation, sundry corporates, mobile companies, etc, including proclaimed anti-reservationists and multi-millionaire spiritual and yoga gurus. The day after his call to the nation’s conscience at Ramlila Ground, Shabnam Hashmi organized a big sms campaign explaining it all to ‘old friend’ Aamir, protesting against his Ramlila show- did he care to read it or follow it up? Or is he still chilling it out with a new Anna script in his mind, with a lot of help from Rajkumar Hirani, out to out-sell and out-source the television wave of this superbly organized manufactured consent?
While several (unseen on television) protracted hard struggles with the poorest pitched against the mighty Indian State backed by greedy, relentless, brutish corporate, have relentlessly moved into the realm of India’s invisible rural and tribal interiors over the last many difficult years (with abject and cold-blooded silence and indifference from the film industry as a priori, what else can you expect from them?), the anti-corruption movement has also become a fashionable fad for the rich and famous. Billionaire Bollywood, floating on obscene, insulated islands of wealth and affluence, dishing out utterly crass, morbidly mediocre and repetitive commercial cinema, suddenly rediscovered its underworld social conscience. Mostly on twitter, the safest ‘revolutionary’ medium to become clichéd patriotic parrots. They were all singing the national anthem in tricolour, my heart is beating, keeps on repeating…
(So if Aamir Khan could come and sing on stage, why not Mallika Sherawat, Badnaam Munni, or even Rakhi Sawant and Shefali Zariwala? Did Arvind Kejriwal and his Jan Lokpal team think item numbers were less patriotic? Kaanta lagaaa…??? – literally, in English: did the thorn hurt!?)
If the medium is the message, no one is even asking if contemporary box office Bollywood’s social conscience has a sense of history written with the complex layers of slow justice, great vision and high morality. Or, if they have ever conceived the idea of a corrupt India as a vast, divided, fragmented, unequal, malnourished geographical and demographical mass, floating on the everyday bitter realism of terrible injustices and huge, impossible disparities of wealth. A dark, darkness of a dark continent perched on macho Pokhran II and the sexy sensex, is India so incomprehensible?
What is the Bollywood idea of a beautiful, superpower, box office India? They are readymade scripts. Posco 2011. AFSPA 1956. POTA 2002. Delhi 1984. Gujarat 2002. Bombay 1992-93. Nandigram 2007. Plachimada 2006. Vidarbha, in the neighbourhood, across all eternity, hanging, literally hanging, on time and space: Hanged to death. Sometimes with the help of suicidal pesticides which so abjectly failed the debt-ridden farmers.
Can they read the cinema medium and reinterpret the kaleidoscopic layers of our imagined communities; can they crack the puzzle of the cracked prism of the inverted truth of India’s ‘filmy’ reality? Can’t they see it all, or do they see it only if it is magical realism 24/7 on TV? Or on twitter? Or, do they see it eyes wide open if it is only a brand which sells? Like Brand Anna?
Give it to the compulsive insatiable ad seller Amitabh Bachchan that he cares two hoots, as long as he makes money, more and more insatiable money. Like Shahrukh Khan, he is ready to sell anything, even dance for money in multi-millionaire wedding parties, or become a reception committee gatekeeper for a chit fund corporate big shot’s gala wedding – once a chummy comrade, now back to zero. From Amar Singh to Narendra Modi’s brand ambassador, for Bachchan, a carnage as in Gujarat becomes a compulsive canned film, as long as the promos work, the cash flows in, the uncanny memory of death and tragedy running like a gutter in a black and white film, no one wants to see.
This is such a shallow hallucinatory, artificially drugged industry with such low and little imagination, conscience or sensitivity, where they have divided the golden cake of the conquerors of the golden city between their mediocre sons and daughters and relatives that their social twitter conscience stinks as transparently as a Bombay gutter. Like the emaciated walk of the anorexic models, this social conscience is intrinsically emaciated, anorexic, suffering from bouts of bulimia, without feeling, knowledge systems or aesthetics, working through mafia like billionaire cartels and guilds. Like the mushy NRI films of Karan Johar. And the method actor mediocrity of Shahrukh Khan.
In the process dumping the finest talents and films into the margins, condemning them in the ghettos of relentless struggle, poverty and obscurity, barring the shooting stars which occasionally enlighten the Bombay cinema sky turning this tyranny of the mediocre upside down, marking luminescence with the sheer brilliance of the complex, rooted, originality of their craft. And this is no parallel cinema with a ‘socialist baggage’, despite the greatness of Manthan, Bhumika, Ankur, or even Raakh and Tamas in the past. This is the dogged idealism of the cinema craft turned inwards and outwards in studied acts of studied brilliance. Like Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, Dev D, Dor, LSD, Maqbool, among others.
This is because box office Bollywood has no respect for intrinsic aesthetics, ordinary joys, human suffering or history’s simmering scaffoldings; it floats on the jelly-like jetsam of an obsessive, myopic, glitzy quagmire, utterly un-selfconscious of its own mindless existential monotony and monopoly, its cheap gimmicks, its meaningless, insipid hangovers. You turn off the sound, it’s all the same. Even with the sound, it is sameness posited as originality.
Compare this with great European cinema, post war, against Nazism, beyond Nazism: rooted in the resistance and search for freedom of the craft and liberation of the human mind and being, love’s lonely love affairs, the wind in the grass: from Rainer Fassbinder, Zoltán Fábri, István Szabó, Andrzej Wajda, Paolo Pasolini, Alain Resnais, Federico Fellini, Werner Herzog, Andrei Tarkovsky, to Charlie Chaplin (hounded in post-cold war McCarthyism, along with Arthur Miller and others) or Alfred Hitchcock, never given an Academy Award.
Witness even contemporary Hollywood. How many in the Mumbai film industry can imagine to make films like what George Clooney has made as director and producer (Syriana, Good Night and Good Luck), or Clint Eastwood’s amazing anti-war films, or stand up in public spaces like Robert Redford, Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn against the war machine of George Bush? And they are not communists or revolutionaries. Even mainstream actors like Kate Winslet, Leonardo Dicaprio and Johnny Depp only choose to make classics; can Karan Johar, Bachchan or Shahrukh Khan even imagine cinema like that? Can they ever make films like Motorcyle Diaries, Schinder’s List, Blood Diamond, The Reader?
As I write this, I wonder, will Gujarat’s ad brand ambassador from Bollywood join Modi’s “five star circus”, as dancer Mallika Sarabhai described it so beautifully. She knows what she is saying. She was relentlessly hounded by Modi, condemned through sustained character assassination and oppressive policing, almost imprisoned in Gujarat. She paid the price for her convictions and actions against the Gujarat genocide. And she never succumbed.
Can any of these Anna allies in Bollywood ever dare to do that? In this one lifetime? For instance, stand at Location Gulberg Society in Ahmedabad, with the hacked and burnt bodies of Ehsan Jafri and his neighbours, floating in cinematic memory in black and white – crafting the cinema of humanity? Can Anupam Kher do that?
But it was always not so. We once had a different soul cinema which entered the remotest corners and interiors of Indian homes and became epical. They broke the threshold of realism and abstract form and content, literature and fiction, socialist realism and art for art’s sake. Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin, V Shantaram’s Do Aankhen Barah Haath, Basu Bhattacharya’s Teesri Kasam, Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy, BV Karanth’s Chomana Dudi, Ritwick Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara and Komal Gandhar, Guru Dutt’s Kaagaz ke Phool, to Govind Nihalani’s Aakrosh, Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anand, or even Amol Palekar’s Anahat (the list is endless). They were not selling ads or dancing in wedding parties or selling their social conscience as a marketing strategy. Like the great IPTA tradition of Sahir Ludhianvi, Sajjad Zaheer, Kaifi Azmi, Salil Choudhary, among the greats, they were true believers in the imagination of a new world where cinema and life were woven like the meaning of Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, and Bertolt Brecht’s song in the darkness; where the dawn was not always an illusion. Like the Pablo Neruda poem: Between lips and lips there are cities.
If there is life and cinema beyond the 24/7 TV show of the “second freedom struggle”, it is right here and out there and beyond market fundamentalism. Or else, it all becomes dirty, ravaged, filthy, polluted, sweetened, sad, fizzy, fuzzy, black magic ground water, unbottled: Thanda Matlab Plachimada.