Balle Bollywood: Bombay Dreams and Postcolonial Realities
Part I: Balle Bollywood
This paper is concerned with what is perhaps the most fascinating “industry” in the world, Bollywood. It is, in fact, a critical celebration of what Bollywood, at its best stands for as a cultural phenomenon. Like most other industries, it’s chief purpose is of course to make money, but what it manufactures in bulk are fantasies for mass consumption. These fantasies have, I shall argue, a non-mimetic logic of their own which servers to substantiate a worldview quite different from that of dominant cinema of the world, Hollywood. So, the implicit theme of my paper is the relationship between Hollywood and its Other, Bollywood. Later, I’ll speak more about the appellation, “Bollywood,” but phrase in the title of this paper, “Balle Bollywood,” has been taken from one of the songs in the hit musical drama, Bombay Dreams. This unique, and rather self-conscious hybrid of a Hindi masala movie and a London stage musical, which blends the talents of two diverse geniuses from the West and the East, Andrew Lloyd Weber and A. R. Rahman, despite initial scepticism, has been a runaway hit. Scripted by Meera Syal with lyrics by Don Black, the story is as hackneyed as can be—about a poor boy making it big in Bombay and ending up marrying the rich girl. The boy, moreover, uses Bollywood itself as his escalator for upward mobility. Like several down and out young men, he has come to the big bad city with not a penny to his name but only a dream in his heart to make his fortune as a film star. The rich girl whom he ends up winning is, in this case, his director! The stage musical, in other words, is a celebration of both the industry and the dream-machine that is Bollywood. The metaphor of Bollywood is turned into a reality—Bollywood is not about such incredible possibilities, it is also the means to realize them.
Romance, melodrama, song and dance, lavish costumes and sets all come together in Bombay Dreams, which has all the ingredients of a Bollywood masala movie packaged, however, for West End audiences. What is more, the musical incorporates some of Rahman’s popular film songs like “Chhaiyya Chhiyya.” Such intertextuality only underscores the unreality of the plot that the title itself acknowledges. What makes Bollywood sell is that it manages both to create and fulfil desire. Its very anti-realism is its real appeal. We need fantasies and dreams to make the grim and depressing realities of our lives somewhat more bearable. Bollywood is about hoping and coping rather than about despairing and escaping. Taken out of its Indian context, Bollywood art tends to appear somewhat comical. But being highly sophisticated and self-reflexive, it has actually started parodying itself. Its export to international markets has not only created new audiences for it, but also helped to promote a different kind of cultural flow, one that subverts and reinvents itself in the face of the dominant. Bollywood, in other words, though deeply interlinked with global media and Hollywood, has attained an artistic and cultural style that is not just autonomous or resistant, but can actually dare to be an alternative to Hollywood.
The term “Bollywood” itself has recently entered The Shorter Oxford Dictionary, a prelude to its being eventually included in the more conservative if definitive OED. Bollywood is an interesting coinage, a neo-logism which leads to a fascinating signifying terrain. Its ambiguous and ambivalent relationship to Hollywood is at once obvious and explicit. On first hearing, it sounds clearly parodic, even pejorative in its connotations, suggesting a relationship of inferiority to Hollywood. But on closer examination, it suggests an irreverence that cocks its snook at the establishment and gets away with it. The term itself was invented during the globalization of Indian mass culture by journalists who wished to read it in terms of the dominant Western cultural system. The ultimate goal being, of course, to integrate it in that global cultural marketplace as the economy itself was to be. But the invention of Bollywood proved to be more than a simple matter of incorporating the subordinate into the dominant. Bollywood has proved its capacity not so much to imitate or oppose Hollywood, but to co-exist with it, nay flourish, as an alternative to it. It suggests a unique non-subjecthood to regimes of power that the global media conglomerates invariably try to enforce. For the purposes of my paper, Bollwood is a unique conjunction of all the issues that I wish to address: power, language, culture, technology, reality, and postcolonial futures.
For too long has elite discourse either ignored Bollywood or treated with an ill-considered disdain as some kind of inferior species of cognition and representation (see Barnouw and Krishnaswamy). Traditionally, “serious” film makers and critics have treated it with contempt, considering it as the purveyor of reactionary ideologies and values, of anti-realistic fantasies offering an escape from the grim realities of class conflict and oppression (see Das Gupta; Prasad). Bollywood has been seen as being controlled by capitalists and organized crime. It is literally the city of sin, corrupting the minds and hearts of the young and old. However, in recent years, new work has changed this trend arguing, first of all, that there is no dichotomy or water-tight distinction between art cinema and popular cinema. Secondly, Bollywood is seen as being much more directly engaged with all the contentious issues of a postcolonial state (see Chakravarty, for instance). In fact, Bollywood is a better reflection to the relationship between the state and its citizens than most elite cultural forms. In other words, it offers a better, more direct reflection of its times than most comparable art forms. To that extent, the reality of Bollywood is that it is not as fantastic as it is thought to be. Rather that fantasy is itself a complex convention that addresses reality more directly than what conventional realism may be credited to do (see Mishra).
This is especially true lately when a series of movies has attempted nothing less than an interpretation of recent Indian history by self-consciously harking back to colonial and postcolonial themes. I am referring to a plethora of films like 1942: A Love Story, Gandhi, Making of the Mahatma, the two films on Bhagat Singh, besides films of Sardar Patel, B. R. Ambedkar, and so on. Besides, a host of other films such as Border, Roja, Mission Kashmir, Machis, Bombay, Dil Se, and so on have dealt with issues of identity, religious and ethnic conflict, terrorism, and so on. It has been reported that Bollywood is already set to make a film on the recent Gujarat riots, in which a character representing Narendra Modi is depicted as a villain. We already know how many portrayals we’ve seen in Bollywood of Bal Thakeray. Certainly, many more than the solitary depiction of Salman Rushdie’s in The Moor’s Last Sigh.
The appeal of Bollywood has spread not only to all corners of that globe that are inhabited by the Indian diaspora, but also to other countries and cultures to whom it is a foreign ethos. During my visit to China last year, I was amazed to be greeted by musical tunes from Raj Kapoor films of the fifties. In countries as varied as Russia and Philippines, Indian popular cinema seems to have made amazing inroads. Japan has a huge fan following of the Tamil superstar Ranjikant, so much that his films which have flopped in India have been able to recover their money because of the Japanese screenings. The entire economy of film making in India has changed after films released in the overseas markets have raked in enormous amounts of cash, that too in currencies like the dollar and the euro, that are almost fifty times the poor Indian rupee. Finally, we cannot overlook the penetration of Bollywood into Hollywood itself. This has been a very slow process, with more and more actors, technicians, and film makers of Indian origin or films with Indian themes doing well in the US markets. These films have been patronized not just by South Asians but by mainstream North American audiences. Films like Gandhi, Passage to India, Elizabeth, Monsoon Wedding, Bend It Like Beckham, and so on are only a few examples.
Bollywood is thus neither merely collaborative or imitative, nor is it purely reactive or resistant to Hollywood. Rather it is an other cinema, with its own universal aspiration even as a non-subject of the West. And Bollywood can do this because it is neither hyper-masculine like Hollywood, nor puritanical like the Taliban, but is truly a more feminine and feminized art form, that eroticises the viewing experience in ways that are radically different from the Hollywood formula of high tech violence, special effects, and sleaze. Bollywood, then, engenders and exemplifies a alternative cultural flow emanating from Asia.
Part II: Bombay Dreams and Postcolonial Realities
In this second part of my paper, I wish to focus on one specific Bollywood superhit, Lagaan (“The Tax,” Hindi, 2001, 225 minutes). Directed by Ashutosh Gowariker and produced by Aamir Khan, this movie made history of sorts by being the second Hindi movie (after Mother India) to be nominated for the best foreign film for the American Motion Picture Academy Awards, and actually being shortlisted to the final round. What is more, it was, like Mother India, a great commercial success both in India and in the overseas market. Written by Ashutosh Gowariker, with dialogues by K. P. Saxena and Ashutosh Gowariker, music by A. R. Rahman and lyrics by Javed Akhtar, and cinematography byAnil Mehta, Lagaan is a landmark Hindi movie, in the same class of Mother India and Sholay. I make this claim on a postcolonial reading of the film.
It used to be fashionable to quote Salman Rushdie on postcolonized Bollywood. It may no longer be necessary to do so. Lagaan (2001; dir. Ashutosh Gowarikar) brings postcolonialism and postcoloniality into the heart of popular Indian cinema in manner that perhaps upstages and exceeds not just Rushdie, but any other Indian English writer, resident in India or diasporic. It manages, moreover, to do so with an amazing combination of both humour and dignity. This is one of its singular achievements. Most other postcolonial texts have one or the other element, but seldom both; most frequently, all that they succeed in doing is to parody the postcolonial, not invest it with any compassion or confidence. That Lagaan did not score at the Oscars is but incidental; it certainly scored not just at the box office, but also in the globalized arena of cultural competition and cooperation. A measure of this international critical (in addition to commercial) success is attested to by the plethora of favourable reviews (it scored a 94% on the tomatometer scale, for instance—29 positive and 2 negative reviews as of 5 June 2002!)
It has now become rather typical, if not fateful, for me, somehow, to miss a cultural event precisely because/when it is so hyped. In the case of Lagaan, I wasn’t in India when it was released and in the US, where I was, neither the DVD nor the videotapes were as yet available. Finally, more than six months after its release, still smarting from its being passed over by the academy awards, I got to see it thanks to generosity of one of the asli Bollywood film buffs of middle America, fellow filmi-diwana, Philip Lutgendorf, of all places, in Iowa City, in the heart of mid-Western US. Philip has one of the great home pages devoted to Hindi movies (http://www.uiowa.edu/~incinema/). Otherwise a gracious and considerate host, Philip couldn’t, however, bear the running commentary that I began to offer on the movie as soon as it started. This was partly for the benefit of the other Americans watching, who knew neither Bollywood nor cricket, but partly because I was so excited by what I was seeing, by what Aamir Khan and co. had actually pulled off. As Aamir himself says in the official website of the film, “Lagaan began as a dream, a nebulous dream dreamt for the first time as far back as 1996 by a man called Ashutosh Gowariker. Over the last 3 years I, and the entire cast and crew of Lagaan, have tried to help and support the man leading us to realize his dreams. The journey has led us all to become a part of this dream. And very soon my friend, you too will be a part of it.” I’m not surprised that the very making of the film has itself assumed the dimensions of a myth, somewhat reminiscent of the cult surrounding Sholay.
I would argue that postcoloniality has come of age in Lagaan precisely because it manages to turn empire into a game not metaphorically, but literally, reversing the earlier formula. Kipling had already referred to the British empire as the great game in Kim, but what he portrayed was deadly serious, even dangerous. The metaphor of the game, then, was merely a mask of conquest, a euphemism for something that was brutal, coercive, and oppressive. Lagaan does not gloss over any of the latter aspects of imperialism. In fact, the pretext for the game is nothing short of a life and death struggle for the inhabitants of Champaner, the fictitious “every-village” of India, against unjust taxation. In the process of their resistance, we are shown the violence and injustice of imperialism in all its nakedness. We only have to remember Marx’s dispatches to the New York Daily Tribune to recall how injurious British taxation was to Indians. In his column of September 17, 1857 Marx, quoting from British sources, documents how routinely torture was used as a state policy by the colonial administration to extract revenue (216-221). Lagaan never lets us forget this fact that colonialism was nothing if it was not a system of economic exploitation. All other forms of oppression and inequity, whether political, cultural, or social, had their roots in the economic. Ironically, much of what goes by the name of postcolonial theory seems to elide over if not utterly erase the primacy of the economic.
Similarly, Lagaan never lets us forget that colonialism was essentially a racist institution. But what makes the film somewhat unique in the annals of the mass media is that it is seldom that we have an international cast working under an Indian banner. Bollywood’s firangis, as in TV serials like Bahadur Shah Zafar or Tipu Sultan are usually of local manufacture and therefore utterly unconvincing in portraying our former masters. They are pathetic caricatures that are too hilarious to be taken seriously; they inspire neither horror nor curiosity. Though Lagaan does not stop short of poking fun at the Britishers, their verisimilitude is a trifle too strong for just levity. For once, in popular cinema, we have a serious attempt at portraying the Other. I consider Lagaan to be a watershed because it shows Indian counter-representations of the British coming of age. What better proof of this than the fact that we can now afford to laugh at colonialism, turn its bitter memory into a game of cricket and a Bollywood blockbuster? We have gotten over colonialism; that is why we can make fun of it, joke about it. To that extent, we’ve actually passed from the colonial to the postcolonial. The trauma of history has been replaced by a new sense of our own self-assurance.
This remarkable aplomb is reflected in a number of qualities in the film, including what, at first, might appear to be the rather trite device of the mem falling in love with our country yokel. That this is in the time honoured traditions of Bollywood fantasy cannot, of course, be denied. But what makes an otherwise trite device interesting is that it allegorizes the possibility not just of cooperation between the colony and the metropolis, and by extension between India and the West, but it also works to prevent a homogenization and demonization of the Other. The film is honest enough to admit that we need the West and, what is more, we need not be ashamed to admit it. Not just that, but the West, too, is internally divided, as capable of dissent as it is of domination. That this dissent is given female agency is not just politically correct, but appropriate given the history of such figures as Sister Nivedita, Annie Besant, Mira Behn, and several other “converts” to the cause of India. Elizabeth memsahab (played by Rachel Shelly) does nothing less than to teach the Indians the “rules of the game.” In a way, isn’t this what some of the other Europeans who were friends of India did? The presumption, of course, is that once we learn the rules, we can take care of ourselves, actually compete, and perhaps, even win. This reflects a new belief in one’s abilities for a nation not yet fully recovered from colonial oppression. The message is loud and clear—India is not afraid of globalization; given a fair chance, we can do well.
There is also the careful orchestration of the villagers’ team itself, representing, yet another time, the construction of the nation in its idealized form. This is a nation in which every citizen, regardless of religion or caste is an important, if not entirely equal member. There are Hindus, a Muslim and a Sikh in the team, not just upper and intermediate castes, but lower castes too. The inclusion of the “untouchable” Kachra is a powerful reminder that caste is still such a divisive issue in India. Kachra is not just a Dalit, but also physically challenged. Lagaan has thus covered the entire spectrum of political correctness in this team. Of course, women aren’t allowed to play the game, but the coach is a woman (Elizabeth) as is the team manager (Gauri, who also feeds the team). Bhuvan’s own caste is indeterminate for the obvious reason that he must serve as a bridge between all the various contending ethnicities in the village. What is more, he also owns land and is relatively independent. The absent father, once again, suggests not just the failure of those custodians of India who allowed India to be colonized, but also the opportunity for a re-fashioning free of paternal authority. The absent father, but very strongly present mother, indicates support from the older generations but with a clear mandate to depart, if necessary, from traditional ways so as to fashion a new modernity for India. When all the factions overcome their petty, and in some sense, primordial loyalties, a new national imagination is seen to realize itself.
What is the role of religion in this consolidation? Lagaan does not shy away from this troublesome issue at all. The temple on top of the hill is clearly Hindu, but it becomes the centre of the spiritual energy of the entire village. Muslims and other minorities are seen dancing in front of it because it is portrayed as a symbol of faith and cultural unity rather than the shrine of any denomination or religious community. That India is and will remain primarily a religious society, not just God-fearing with conventional piety, but God-reliant in moments of crisis is thus emphasized. The film acknowledges that any idea of secularism will have to take this cultural orientation into account. Indeed, the cricket match, and the battle for the future of the village that it comes to embody, is shown to be a secular activity, as nation building is. But it is not to be divorced from the living faith of the players. The secular is thus neither separate nor autonomous but grounded in and derives from the soil of faith.
Several critics of Bollywood cinema have reacted to or analysed the manner in which it treats the issue of religious identities. For instance, much ink has been expended on explaining how a Muslim woman, Nargis, was transformed into the symbol of Mother India. Lagaan’s stance on this is clear. The match-saver is the injured Muslim batsman, Ismail, who comes back to play on the second day (don’t doubt the loyalty of Muslims; they’re as patriotic as any other Indian is). But more importantly, Aamir, a Muslim, becomes not Father India in this film—indeed, there can be no Father India at all—but the Son of Mother India, which in part is actually the title of Dhan Gopal Mukherjee’s 1928 rebuttal of Katherine Mayo’s damaging tract, Mother India (1927). That this worthy Son of Mother India is also a Muslim should not alarm those who wish to prove how Hindu hegemony has tainted Bollywood. Once again, they might try to explain away this radical acceptance. After all, like Nargis, who married a Hindu, Aamir too has a Hindu wife. But in this case, the Nargis formula, attributing her acceptance to her marriage with a Hindu, will not work. That these critics fail to mention that Nargis’ father was also a Hindu is, of course, another matter. In Aamir’s case, some other extenuating reason will have to be offered. What these critics fail to understand is that for Bollywood, Hindu and Muslim, have never been mutually exclusive as much as overlapping, yet different categories. In a sense, Hindu and Muslim in Bollywood are like Hindi and Urdu—not quite the same, but not totally different either. Would it not be more obvious, if not persuasive, to accept instead that not just Bollywood, but India itself continues to be amazingly progressive in these matters? What we see is neither simple-minded syncreticism or naïve tolerance, but a much more complex and radical celebration of cultural difference. Lagaan may be shown to accept, even promote, a Hindu majoritarian national identity, but the culture of this identity is nevertheless maintained on the bedrock not of homogenized sameness, but the acceptance of radical difference. The reordering of power relations between communities has neither eroded nor negated this constitutive feature of Indian identity; it has only give in a different colour and configuration.
That Bhuvan, the Son of Mother India, is unmarried, but betrothed shows his ambiguous position. He is an object of multiple and contending desires, but also the model of a loyal, stable, and dependable Indian male. His initiative, daring, inventiveness, courage, competence, and above all, luck, suggest a new type of heroism for India. This is not the heroism of the angry young man, the avenging vigilante, or the utterly fantastic superhero. Rather, it the heroism of a new variety, absent say, in another rural epic such as Naya Daur. This is the heroism of a villager who dreams of being not so much a city slicker as in the earlier Bollywood formula, but actually a global player. The competing claims to his affection insinuate that India is itself an object of desire, fought over by both its native and colonialist claimants. That the latter must retreat in the end is a foregone conclusion, but among them, there is an internal tussle between those who would take India by force (Captain Russel) and those who would by seduction (Elizabeth). In the end, however, it is India that emerges as the ultimate seducer, both of those that it accepts and rejects. India, or should I say Bollywood itself, enchants both the Russels, brother and sister. Born of the same womb, the two siblings show the internal contradictions of empire. Speaking of Bollywood, how that pejorative epithet, connoting its derivative, secondary, imitative, and ultimately subordinate status to Hollywood, is falsified, not so much by Bhabaian mimicry, but by its assumption of the stature of a cinema that is at once national and nationalist as it is comfortably cosmopolitan and internationalist is rather remarkable. It is this crossover that Lagaan accomplishes with such virtuosity that makes is truly postocolonial in all the various senses of the word. It is at once anticolonial while also being freed from a colonial cringe, and thus having outgrown its colonial past. But in both its techniques and modes of self-representation, it manages to be global and transcultural in a way that is different and yet as valid or convincing as a well-made Hollywood production.
It will not do to leave this subject without touching on cricket, which is the central plot engine of the film. Set in 1893, this mythical cricket match is so sophisticated an illustration as to be uncanny of Ashis Nandy’s compellingly curious thesis that cricket is “An Indian game accidentally discovered by the British.” I’m not sure that Ashutosh Gowarikar, who conceived the film, has read either Nandy or the other theorists of cricket, but that he has internalized their insights cannot be doubted. The game of cricket is turned into a classic instance of what postcolonials like to call the empire writing back. The colonized seize the language of the colonizers to reinscribe themselves with it. Doing so, they take control of their own self-representations and thus resist, subvert, and, ultimately overturn the designs of their conquerors. But what makes Lagaan special is that it not only vernacularizes cricket, as Boria Mazumdar suggests, but also bilingualises it. The monculture of the colonial master is not merely resisted in the latter’s own tongue, but in a multiplicity of tongues. In fact, the language that the characters speak in the film is itself a hybrid of Braj, Avadhi, and Bhojpuri that the dialogue writer, K. P. Saxena skillfully combined. Similarly, the game of cricket too is “translated” into an Indian idiom: it is cricket, but cricket that bears the traces of other games, other ways of ordering life. It is not just the techniques of gilli-danda that the Indians use, but they also end up inventing unorthodox shots and, above all, spin bowling! Thus, weaknesses are turned into strengths, and a new Tantra of decolonization is invented.
There is a powerful objection against the film voiced in Nissim Mannathukaren’s article in Economic and Political Weekly that I’d like to counter, if only in the passing. I hope I can do this not in “the spirit of refutation and de-fetishization” which as Gayatri Chakravary Spivak reminds us, “is a homo-erotic adventure that simply gives the game to the best arguer, the best manipulator of power,” but instead “to examine with painstaking care if the protocols of the text contains [sic] a moment that can produce something that will generate a new and useful reading” (A Critique of Postcolonial Reason 98). “‘Lagaan,’” he claims, “a film which ostensibly has the subaltern as the protagonist, ultimately ends up reaffirming the hegemonic nationalist project in which the subaltern has no place” (all quotations from the website). Mannathukaren’s contention is that the film constructs the British colonial authority as the “sole other” in the film, thereby effacing all the “internal others” in the nation in the film. For instance, even the Raja, who would otherwise be seen as an internal exploiter, is shown to be antagonistic to the British. Apart from this, Mannathukaren repeats Ranajit Guha’s claim that “the history of peasant rebellion in India at least till the end of the 19th century shows us that the subaltern action cannot be invested with a nationalist consciousness.” Therefore, the film imposes a false unity on the struggles against colonialism so as to annex them to the teleology of the emerging nation state: “whether in the colonial or the post-colonial era: the subaltern’s history is tied to the destiny of the ‘nation’, the question of class, caste and gender oppression has to wait till such time that the ‘nation’ is strong and able to stand on its feet.” Ultimately, therefore, Mannathukaren asserts that the film is simply yet another example of the legitimation of the ideology of nationalism: “the imagined ‘nation’ becomes the mask worn by the ruling classes to cover their face of exploitation.”
The problem with such a reading is that it can be applied with equal or greater force to Mannathukaren’s own intervention. What better mask or cover for the ruling classes than the advocacy of the cause of the “silent” peasant and the attempt to speak on her behalf? Way is Mannathukaren’s own discourse exempt from the privileges that it condemns in Aamir Khan’s film? In accusing the film of erasing subaltern agency in what way is Mannathukaren’s essay restoring such agency? If the battle is waged on their behalf, how is it that those who seem to be speaking on their behalf are no different materially than their ideological opponents? Isn’t it obvious that ideological posturing is a convenient substitute for any real or meaningful action? Why should Mannathukaren’s mask be “better” than Amir Khan’s? All this raises the vexed question of subaltern agency. For the subaltern point of view to be really represented, the film would have to be made of the subalterns, by the subalterns, for the subalterns themselves. But if they could make such a high-budged film, would they be subalterns at all? Mannathukaren’s paper would imply, after Spivak, that because the subalterns cannot speak, others should speak for them. I have no problems with that, except I would modify Spivak somewhat: the subaltern can speak, does in fact speak, but is she heard? She speaks in a language we do not understand, both literally and metaphorically. She speaks neither in an elite language, nor are her words circulated in the same manner as those of the elites. So, I would say that subalterns do speak, but are seldom heard, so they need to be spoken for. But where I differ with Mannathukaren is in the latter’s implication that he can represent the subalterns, while Aamir Khan cannot. Why? Because Mannathukaren is equipped with an ideological superiority that is denied to Aamir? It is this sort of implied claim that I find utterly spurious.
The “fatal flaw” in Mannathukaren is that it seeks to produce a single authoritative narrative of subaltern agency, excluding or rejecting all others. In doing so, he ignores the fact that the category of the subaltern is unstable, that any value ascribed to it is transitive, that is historically specific, and that the subalterns’ consciousness resists translation, not just into a Bollywood formula, but also into what Graham Huggan has called “syndicated oppositionality” (9). The kind of critique that Mannathukaren launches against Lagaan smacks of an attempt to delimit the scope of criticism itself to those who are authorized to do so by some master-narrative or the other; as such it represents an attempt to monopolize the critical space itself, disallowing contending “regimes of value.” In other words, Mannathukaren’s narrative is itself authorized by the same kinds of rhetorical shifts and processes of exclusion that it uses to delegitimate what it attacks. I would argue, with Spivak, “that the networks of power/desire/interest are so heterogeneous, that their reduction to a coherent narrative is counterproductive” (“Can the Subaltern Speak?” 66). In mistaking portrait for proxy, Mannathukaren seems to confuse and conflate the two senses of “representation”—Marx’s darstellen vs. vertreten (Spivak ibid 70-71). I don’t think Lagaan claims to speak for the subaltern in the first place, so how can it be attacked for failing to do so? On the contrary, it is Mannathukaren who arrogates to himself the right to speak on behalf of the subaltern and therefore opens himself to such an attack. By shifting the line of oppression and exploitation from the international to the intra-national, Mannathukaren negates the struggle against colonialism, thereby replacing the colonial elite with bourgeois elite as the real enemies of the people. Of course, this bourgeois elite is nowhere represented in the movie: even the rather ineffectual Maharaja, who Mannathukaren singles out, is not even bourgeois, but residual feudal. So Mannathukaren must locate the enemy elsewhere, identifying it with those who created the film itself. The fight is thus shifted from within the film to without, rendering Bollywood and its audiences as the ruling and exploiting classes who work against the interests of the very subalterns that they render so desirable. Mannathukaren, in effect, really targets the national(ist) elite, which should be obvious. But those who oppose them are not the subalterns themselves those who, like Mannathukaren, speak in their name. In opposing the nationalist elite, Mannathukaren becomes little better than a native informant for first-world intellectuals rendering the voice of the erased subaltern. But if the “colonized subaltern subject is irretrievably heterogeneous” as Spivak contends (ibid 79), then subaltern identity is best thought of as positional instead of essential. In other words, one man’s subaltern is another woman’s colonel. Mannathukaren’s move is an old Marxian one, to consider aesthetics as a mask of ideology. But in his case, ideology is nothing if not another mask of privilege—ideology, that is, as the opiate of the classes. Thus what we have is a tussle between two kinds of privilege: one that is nationalist bourgeois (Lagaan) and another that is bourgeois subalternist. If the subaltern indeed cannot speak, then we can be sure that the subalternist can no more speak on her behalf than the nationalist can. There can be no automatic conferral the right to represent the subaltern. We would have to embark on a case by case examination, as it were, to determine how the politics of each representation plays out. That is why we can neither accept Mannathukaren’s subalternism nor reject Gowarikar’s “nationalism” in their entirety. What the film demands is a more complex reading of its aesthetics and politics than either unconditional applause or a reductive rejection.
That is why, to me, the real question is, ultimately, not primarily that of the legitimacy of the nationalist ideology but rather of the manner in which it is presented in Lagaan. According to the film, the interests of the subaltern would be better served by a projected nationalist state, symbolized by the village cricket team, than by a colonialist one that is already in place. Therefore, a provisional legitimacy must be granted to such a state, even as its ruling classes must be challenged to better share their resources and privileges with the rest of the country. It is unclear how an anti-national(ist) ideology will, per se, serve the subalterns better. What sort of state or polity can the so-called alternate ideology hope to achieve with the comprehensive defeat of the supposed alternative that the dream of universal socialism proposed? In the absence of an alternative, the narrative of democratic nationalism still hods out hope. To discredit it entirely, as Mannathukaren ventures to do, creates the sort of self-hating disaffection and cynicism that is self-indulgent at best and self-promoting at worst.
For the present, then, we shall have to decide between two versions of “progress,” one which is within the bourgeois-nationalist paradigm, broadly speaking, and one pretends to be outside it. The “outside,” in most cases, is the even more privileged location in one of the advanced, “neo-imperialist” economies of the world, where enjoying even greater prestige and power, it can freely criticize both the host country as well as the home country with equal impunity. What is more, this form of social criticism insulates itself from the attack that it launches on its opponents by virtue of its claim to a superior ideological position not an alternative subject position materially constituted. What sort of state would such a project result in is never defined, nor the exact contours of this alternative consciousness. Unlike Gramsci’s organic intellectuals, the critics of nationalism do not belong to or hail from the classes whose interests they claim to espouse. Neither have they declassed themselves in anyway so as better to represent their subaltern constituencies. What is the location of such criticism? What are its class bases? It’s underlying cultural and political economy? How is Mannathukaren’s critique immune from Rustam Bharucha’s observation that the former applies to Lagaan: “[w]hat appears to be a subversion is actually a means of reaffirming the underlying norms of a narrative”? In a word, are bourgeois “subalternist” anti-nationalists inherently superior to bourgeois liberal nationalists?
In the final analysis, however, my quarrel with Mannathukaren is not merely ideological, but also aesthetic, although I suspect the two amount to the same thing to him. I dislike the politically reductive manner in which he reads the film, robbing it of any pleasure it may give as a work of art or even as a masala film. This is exactly what Boria Majumdar’s essay, ‘Politics of Leisure in Colonial India, ‘Lagaan’ – Invocation of a Lost History,” also published in Economic and Political Weekly, which he rebuts, does not do. While Majumdar has evidently enjoyed the movie and is enthusiastic about it, Mannathukaren appears not to have yielded to that temptation. There is a grim and unrelenting tone of reprimand that runs through the essay, quite reminiscent of Bharucha’s puritanical carp against Roja some years ago accusing it of bordering on the fascist. Apparently, Mannathukaren is unable or unwilling to appreciate how Lagaan takes the tired cliché of the underdog sports genre of Hollywood to turn it into a 225 minute epic of postcolonial nationalism. Whether such nationalism deserves to be mocked at or whether it deserves to be applauded for sustaining the faith of a people in themselves is another issue. No doubt, Bollywood films offer fantasies and myths to a mass audience. But can they be dismissed merely as forms of false consciousness or bad faith? Rather, they seem to me to act like Malinowski’s “charter myths,” justifying the present day social order, imposing as in the case of Lagaan, a retrospective direction, morality, and justification to the story of national liberation. In a country such as India, the national imaginary cannot be dismissed either in the name of a transnational globalism nor sacrificed in favour of a fragmentary postmodern subalternism. The popularity and success of Lagaan makes it amply clear that such a critical, self-reflexive, pluralistic, and progressive nationalism is not only useful as a safety valve, but necessary as a sort of civic religion for the one billion different entities that inhabit India. And that Bollywood at its best continues to be the conscience keeper of such a faith.
Some of what I’ve been saying is well-illustrated in Deepa Mehta’s latest feature film, Bollywood Hollywood. Released in India in early 2003, this film starts of intending to be a Hollywood-ishtyle parody of Bollywood, however, by the end, the shoe seems to be on the other foot. The energy of Bollywood completely captures and overturns the film, making the parody more persuasive than the realistic story. As Rashid Irani in a perceptive note on the film said, “the digs and cracks at Mumbai’s masala movies are not only laboured, they also fall flat at several places. An exerpt from Rangeela looks far superior to its parody” (Times of India January 5, 2003: 12). Indeed, the metamorphosis is complete in the song “Ranga-ranga mein” when the lead couple, accompanied with several Canadian pairs, perform a Bollywood style song celebrating their love for each other. This song, as it happens, is also the turning point of the film, bring to a close the misunderstandings and social divisions that separated Rahul and Sue, the hero and heroine from one another. In a recent issue of Span magazine, whose cover story has the same title, “Bollywood Hollywood,” Mahesh Bhatt claims that Bollywood would never have been possible without Hollywood. Many products of the former are copies or adaptations of the latter. The point, however, is that Bollywood constitutes not just an imitation of Hollywood or even a reaction against it, but something entirely new and different, a third sort of response to it which actually constitutes an alternative.
Without trying to romanticize it overmuch, I have argued that Bollywood represents a sort of “unauthorized” modernity which is at the same time an alternativity. Since before the partition, it has attracted the best writers and poets of Urdu, many of whom were associated with the Progressive Writers’ movement. Even if the movement lots its impetus, its values became incorporated into the dominant discourse of Bollywood and still persist to this day. The result is that the best of Bollywood, as exemplified by Lagaan, may well present a special kind critique of tradition as well as of modernity. This critique, though radical and far-reaching, is nonetheless not hostile to certain non-negotiable elements of the tradition that it seeks to reform. To that extent, it is an attempt at reengineering Indian society from within. The plurality of its mimetic styles, its internal contradictions and ideological confusions notwithstanding, Lagaan manages to delineate the intricacy and complexity of Indian society in transition. A “purist” modernity as articulated by the leftist “alternative” cinema (such as Deepa Mehta’s Fire) or the cultural imperialism of Hollywood, on the other hand, are monolingual discursive inflictions that can be seen as foreign and interfering. Consequently, their cultural politics is divisive and, ultimately, counter-productive. In demonizing tradition, they desecrate and insult what they wish to change. That is why our champions of secular modernity find themselves so embattled today: the critical rationality that they promote as the sole engine of social transformation cannot operate freely in a climate where objects of piety are enshrined in the collective consciousness of a people. Another language, another idiom needs to be found to carry out the reformative designs of the secular modernists. This was the idiom that the greatest Indian modernist of recent time, M. K. Gandhi, discovered. Though it would be shocking to make this suggestion, I believe that Bollywood still carries the impress of his thought more eloquently than some of the “official” Gandhians of today.
Note: Portions of this paper were presented at a conference on “Cultural Flows in a Globalizing Asia,” Monash University, Melbourne, Australia, 29th November to 2nd December 2002; an earlier version of Part II, the section on Lagaan, appeared as the “Afterword” of Evam: Forum on Indian Representations 1.1&2 (2002): 268-276.
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