Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The baby elephant in the room

I watched Aisa Yeh Jahan at a special screening in Pune. The Lost Plot, a very unique film club that screens movies in a rooftop bar in Aundh - it is just as romantic as it sounds - has been my favorite haunt in Pune for a while. Besides regular screenings of popular and classic films, and periodic mini-festivals, they try to promote small, little-heard-of films that don't get much attention in mainstream cinemas.

For the screening of Aisa Yeh Jahan, the cast and crew of "India's first carbon neutral film" was present at the club. In the later Q&A session, the director Biswajeet Bohra was very graceful when I questioned the mild misogyny in the film's treatment of Ira Dubey's character. 

There was another question I wanted to ask, but refrained of politeness - and has bothered me more every time I now think about it. It was about the character Pakhi, the preteen domestic help living with the Saikias, an Assamese family based in Mumbai.

I was reminded of Pakhi again today as I read this stirring article by Alex Tizon, the Pulitzer winning American journalist and child of first generation immigrants from Manila. He describes the family's relationship with Lola, a Philippine woman who traveled with the family from Manila to the States, and spent the major part of her life serving them. "I had a family, a career, a house in the suburbs," writes Tizon, describing his American dream, "And then I had a slave."

How different is Pakhi from Lola? If anything, she is younger. Sepia-tinted flashback in the films establish how the girl is separated from her mother at a young age, and pressed into service of a rich family in the village. The son of this family, along with his wife and toddler daughter, acquire this "domestic help" for their Mumbai home. Now by Mumbai standards, this nuclear family is as middle class as they come. Mr Saikia goes to office with a lunchbox. His wife works as a receptionist. Most Mumbai families of this sort can loathe afford a nanny, let alone a full time servant.

Unless that servant is a child herself. And comes as part of the package of owning lands back home. It is nowhere explicitly stated in the film whether the girl is paid a salary. It is explicitly stated however that she is uneducated, and the kindhearted Saikias - who defensively call her a member of a family in front of their Mumbai friends - display no intention of ever sending the girl to school. That is an exclusive privilege of the highborn Kuhu.

More disturbingly, at one point Mr Saikia beats this girl... well not really, because he's such a cuddly teddy bear who could never beat anyone, but he pretends to beat her, to appease his wife. Even though that "beating" is really just him making slapping sounds from inside the room, the disturbing implication is that in this house, beating a thirteen year old girl is considered legitimate.

What do you call this arrangement, if not slavery? In a film concerning itself with Big Issues like environment and the alienation faced by North Eastern Indians in big cities, this blatantly casteist practice within a North Indian family is completely ignored.

Before starting to write this post, I went through some of the reviews of this film available online. The film has received low ratings across the board, and mainly panned for its amateurish execution of a well meaning theme, and a scattered plot. Kymsleen Kholie who plays Pakhi receives acclaim for her work, and deservedly so. None of the reviews however, point at her arrangement with the Saikia family, or seem much perturbed by it.

Lola was a real woman, while Pakhi is fiction. The thing about fiction however is that it is often an extraction of many facts. The fact that such a character is so comfortably slipped into a story about human values and culture is telling. How common is it for the people behind this film to have see full time domestic help in their house, plucked from their family and village at a young age, denied education, made to sleep on the floor and bound to serve for life?

The recent disclosure by a Mumbai-based entrepreneur about his experience lending domestic help to film industry households tells us this is nothing new.

By the end of this film, things change, as they do in movies. Lessons are learned, hugs are exchanged, trees are planted - and Pakhi continues to live and serve as before. As symbolism goes, the well-meaning people behind this film have no intention to change the lives of people like Pakhi. They're destined to sleep on the floor and serve for life.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

How women could have solved Baazigar

Chapter 1
Vishwanathan Sharma



Whom should I entrust with my business decisions?
My beautiful wife, who loves me dearly, mother of my children...

...giver of charity.


Or my son, who'll sign papers according to...

His mother's advice
Or this slimy character who has duped me before?


Tough Call.

Dad. That. Man. Duped. You.

Boss. I duped you.

You may have duped me, Madan Chopra. I had the pleasure of sending you to jail. You have a criminal record...

But at least you're not a woman!

You had it coming, dog.

I had it coming, dear. Now let me go out in pouring rain with a weak heart to search for medicine after all shops have closed.

Hang on, dear.

You didn't think of giving me power of attorney...

But I hope the fact that I'm a woman won't stop you...

From taking my last remaining piece of jewelry to help your useless ass.

Wsh.... Nice burn, mom!




Chapter 2
Madan Chopra

Hmm. And who do I trust? Let's see.

My only living off-spring, who I love more than anything in the world...

For whose sake I've humiliated myself and done slimy deeds to my benefactor...




And only last year I was naming factories after my daughters and buying them expensive cars

And she has studied something-or-the-other in Simla.

So should I entrust my business to my sweet, beloved, educated, living daughter?

Or the guy who entered our lives out of nowhere...

And has no family... and whose real eyes I've never seen?

And he has a penis! Did you for a moment think...

I'd entrust bizniss to a woman? Nah.

The End

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Baahubali - A Song of Navel and Eyes

As the nation throngs cinema halls to finally unravel the deep mystery of Baahubali's murder, I'm curbing my enthusiasm and thinking about the cinematic marvel that was the first movie. Or the one it wanted to be. You can call it groundbreaking, genre bending, the film that finally unites North and South (Hello! Roja, anyone?) and many more things. Deep in our hearts we all know what we were looking for in this story of muscular heroes saving the day. We were hoping against hope for India's answer to Game of Thrones.

For the last seven years since the gigantic TV drama captured our imagination, we have all been whispering that age old lament over cups of tea and plates of sabudana wadas. It's the same lament we cried when we walked out misty eyed from a screening of Jurassic Park, or Independence Day, or The Matrix. Why can't India come up with something like this? Why can't we whip up a sensual feast with larger than life set pieces, nail biting action and mind boggling stories that the world can look up to?

Let me tell you it's not for lack of trying.

By trying I mean our films have tried to emulate some of those pretty fight scenes, those tricky visual effects, those interminable car chases, in the hopes of earning the same kind of applause. The result, obviously, has been at best Shivaay and at worst Jaani Dushman.

Because in our rush to recreate what Hollywood does passably well, we forget some of the important ingredients that go into the making of a worldwide box office phenomenon.

Script

Hollywood's greatest contribution to cinema is not churning out movies with monstrous budgets at a regular pace. It is the screenplay.

French filmmaker and wizard, Georges Milies is believed to have written the first screenplay for his film A Trip To The Moon. The early American film The Great Train Robbery had a screenplay that pretty much sets the format that is followed till date, except for dialogue. TGTR was a silent film.

It is said that Ashok Kumar and his colleagues studied the Hollywood style of scriptwriting for Achhut Kanya. Some of his best known films, including Howrah Bridge and Chalti Ka Naam Gadi, if you observe, follow a good coherent script.

Movies written by Salim-Javed are a study in structured screenplay. In recent years, many Indian filmmakers are building on strong scripts to come up with some fine multiplex-friendly movies.

But when it comes to more spectacularly mounted fares, the integrity of the screenplay is tossed off the window. Sanjay Leela Bhansali is among the worst offenders in this crime. Why, dear me why, would a medieval Indian Maharaja let his daughter entertain guests with song and dance, even if she is played by the gorgeous Deepika Padukone and the song is such a feast to the eyes? Such creative choices of course come not organically from the story, but from our filmmakers' assumption of what the audience wants to see.

And they are usually right. Warrior or queen, we like our heroines dancing. If they want more, they can go work elsewhere.

I don't think it is a coincidence that both Priyanka Chopra and Deepika Padukone, who danced so sportingly to the strains of Pinga in Bajirao Mastani, have gone on to find work in Hollywood. Perhaps that's the only place where they'll be asked to act, even it means fighting in a sports bra. At least they're not dancing.

Shivaay has a long-drawn action sequence after the kidnapped kids at the centre of its story are rescued. Fan has three long chase scenes in the service of a movie star's bruised ego. In films of a certain scale, we lose all sense of perspective.

Values

No matter how big the film, no matter how simplistic the narrative, Hollywood has a good grip on the values they espouse in their stories. They also keep improving on it. Even the biggest summer releases try to correct past sins of that industry by featuring a more diverse cast. Almost every big disaster movie has heroes who learn lessons in teamwork and being less of a douchebag. Even at the cost of belying some social realities and pissing off a few meninists, Hollywood movies keep portraying a rosier, fairer, less racist and gender balanced universe. Every once in a while, they address the social realities as well. There are films that portray historic and present day racism, critique American consumerism, and call out the still unequal treatment of women.

In India, misogyny is cool if the budget is right. Sultan can totally sideline his wife's aspirations, Baahubali can totally hijack a warrior lady's mission. And caste does not exist. The servants in Suraj Barjatya films just like being servants and marrying other servants.

This article talks about casteism in Baahubali. It also addresses the argument that the story is set in different times than ours. Right there is where the Game Of Thrones comparison stings most. The books and series are also set in an older, crueler world with different rules than ours. Yet through many different characters and subplots, the injustice and imperfections of that system are questioned, and the rules bent. Arya goes from a highborn girl to a nobody to a dangerous assassin. Brienne is mocked and harassed all her life, but she'll remain a warrior, thank you very much. The low-born Onion Knight is raised from pirate to King's Hand. The Brotherhood of the Wall treats all men as equal, and operates democratically. The Wildlings are humanized. I could go on and on.

Indian films are completely unable, unwilling, or entirely clumsy in questioning social hierarchies of any kind. Things are just the way they are. Hence our stories never rise above the banal plot and become about something bigger, because we don't want to touch the bigger issues.

Vision

Speaking of bigger issues, the most audacious quality of Hollywood blockbusters is their presumption of speaking for all of humanity. Aliens invade, America rescues. Virus erupts, America finds the cure. Americans solve hunger, AIDS, space and time travel, and it won't be long before they solve farmer suicides in Vidarbha, because India just cannot be bothered.

Our larger-than-life movies are about larger-than-life men (it's never a woman) and little else. Even a film with such noble intentions as Airlift has one Punjabi hero saving all the Indians in Kuwait with little help from anyone else. The real life incident that inspired the film was about the collaborative effort of a group of Malayalis.

Baahubali is about one man's struggle to win back his birth right. Shivaay is about one Indian man solving all of Bulgaria's problems. By contrast, Mad Max: Fury Road had an established hero assisting - not leading - a group of women on their quest to freedom.

In his book The Art Of Dramatic Writing, Lajos Egri states the case for building a dramatic story around a strong premise, a kind of central message or belief that lays the foundation of the narrative. Jurassic Park tells you not to fuck with nature. Mad Max celebrates the indomitable human spirit.

Take a look at most big budget Indian films, and the common premise you're likely to find is: the world bows to an awesome dude (again, never a woman).

PK: awesome alien dude
3 Idiots: awesome scientist dude
Rustom: awesome Navy dude
Sultan: awesome wrestler dude

See a trend?

Most of our big budget films are afraid to portray a flawed hero. Rancho cannot be wrong about anything. Sultan always wins. PK comes to Earth and solves all our problems. It wasn't always so. Sholay contained dollops of humour around Veeru's buffoonery. Deewar's Vijay was a deeply insecure man scared by a random incident from his childhood. Random, because he was attacked and tattooed by the villagers, not his brother. That set the two brothers on different paths for life.

***

It's not that our film directors, writers and producers are unaware of the integrity of the script, the importance of strong values, or the place for great vision that goes into making great cinema. For some reason, once big budgets get involved, all the awareness takes a backseat, and we panic into churning out yet another hyper masala monstrosity with dancing heroines and infallible heroes, and zero social awareness. On the last point, maybe the political realities of our country have a big role to play. Artistic freedom is worth zilch in our society and any asshole can tear down a cinema hall for any imagined offense. Still and all, a few efforts would be nice. Good films have been made in our country, and have done good business too.

Forget about making another Game Of Thrones or Jurassic Park. Let's make another Deewar.















Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Imtiaz Girl

I doubt anybody watching Vikramaditya Motwane's fabulously claustrophobic thriller Trapped will spare a thought about the woman in the story, but then that's the feminist's curse. We can't not notice. And I especially cannot miss an Imtiaz Girl hiding away in any corner of an otherwise impeccable tale.

Even though Geetanjali Thapa's character in the film was just a plot device to corner our protagonist into a bad decision that resulted in the film's main plot, couldn't they have come up with a better plot device than an Imtiaz Girl? Sorry, first the explanation...

An Imtiaz Girl is one of those modern day semi-liberated women you are most likely to find in an Imtiaz Ali movie. A badass away from home, but pragmatically goodie-two-shoes in front of family. Often engaged to be married to a man of the family's choosing, but game for some adventures before committing. The accidentally liberated girls - who set off from house looking only for a man's love, but end up doing something vaguely feministy.

Aditi, the orphan who must parade before a litany of would-be grooms for the benefit of her foster parents; but cannot resist a quick trip to Goa with total strangers for the fun of it.

Geet, whose only desire in life is to marry her college boyfriend, and runs off to be with him. He rejects her, and she takes up a job and leads a miserable lonely life in cold Simla. Until a Man comes to her rescue.

Heer, who is engaged to be married, and wants to live out a twisted Bachelorette fantasy with a guy clearly and easily smitten with her.

Veera, who runs out on her wedding, gets kidnapped and predictably develops Stockholm Syndrome.

In the spirit of all Imtiaz Girls, Thapa's Noorie is supposed to be the bolder half in the relationship. Rajkumar's Shaurya stutters as he tries to ask her out. She is so bold she teases him before going out with him. She even almost has sex with him - but alas! - she is already engaged, and must marry her intended, unless THE MAN DOES SOMETHING. That something he tries to do to rescue her from her marriage is what lands him in a ghost building, without roommates, without electricity or water, locked up on some 30+ floor with not a soul knowing his whereabouts. And while he struggles for his very existence, what does our girl do? She gets married, of course.

It used to puzzle me why so many Imtiaz Girls ended up eloping, or running out on impending weddings or engagements. But then, the Imtiaz Girl has little or no notion of standing up for herself, speaking out, earning her liberation bit by painful bit. She is the 21st Century manic pixie dreamgirl, helpless and manipulative in equal parts. A Man will always be her lifeboat to escape an unwanted marriage.

And the Imtiaz Girl is apparently becoming popular beyond Imtiaz Ali films as well. Tanu from Tanu Weds Manu was the classic Imtiaz Girl, fluttering her eyelids at prospective grooms to please her parents, then threatening them into calling off the engagement, because she has a boyfriend. It would never do to tell the parents herself.

A couple of years ago, four short films were afforded a mainstream release in the theatres under the title Chaar Cutting. Two of those films had female leads engaged to be married within a short deadline, UNLESS THE HERO DOES SOMETHING. And in both films, the hero fails to do that thing, and the heroine goes off to get married. One of them was a Mumbai girl who smokes and flirts with the guy in public places, and takes the initiative to get into a physical relationship. Yet when the guy goes into a coma, a day before her impending wedding to someone else, she promptly gets hitched, and sprouts a pregnant belly not a year from then. Smoking and flirting is the extent of her boldness.

And of course there are all the original Imtiaz Girls from Imtiaz films.

Are so many of our filmmakers so utterly convinced that women are these spineless, selfish, manipulative creatures, who will commit to a marriage if it pleases the family, and run out on that commitment as soon as a BETTER MAN shows up? Who, for the love of this Better Man, will elope, putting family and some poor guy through loads of pain, rather than blood speak up and tell people what she wants?

And it is no coincidence that none of these Imtiaz Girls are ever shown to have career aspirations. Unless the Imtiaz Girl is a guy.

Tamasha is to my knowledge the only Imtiaz film in which the girl does the honorable thing and breaks up with her boyfriend after she realizes she loves someone else. And she spends four years stewing in her feelings for this random guy she met on a vacation - four long years during which her parents patiently let her be, induct her in the family business, and reward her efforts with professional growth. The guy on the other hand is he manic pixie of this film. Away from parents and everything familiar, he lets himself free in faraway Corsica. He sings and dances and jumps and talks to mountains. Back in India and back to his job, he turns into a most boring version of himself. Four years later, the girl seeks him out, they start dating. But the girl was looking for her manic pixie. The guy cannot be the manic pixie anymore, or at least he thinks he can't. They break up, he goes on a search for his inner pixie, he rebels, he sets free, they reunite and all's well in pixie-land.

I might be one of the few people in the world who loved Tamasha. But the more I think about it, the more I feel that if Ved in the movie had been a girl, the story would have ended with the two young people reuniting after four years. All that searching-for-your-real-self stuff? That's for guys.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The curious case of Mehra's Sahiba

Timeless love stories are perhaps not the best subject for a feminist analysis, but heck, sue me. It's not as if non-feminists are ga ga over Rakeysh Om Prakash Mehta's modern retelling of the Mirza-Sahiba tragedy.

What is it about love stories that makes our best filmmakers so regressive that they forget to write a fleshed out female character?

In Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Bajirao Mastani, the titular Mastani started out as a badass warrior princess. Once smitten by the hero Bajirao, she's reduced to a simpering pouting mess.

ROMP has featured some strong female characters in his movies. His very first Aks had Raveena with her unapologetic sexuality and Nandita Das calling out marital rape for what it was, over a decade before the issue became fashionable. His Rang De Basanti, Delhi 6 were studded with willful, intelligent and ambitious women.

So why is it that Soochita, the modern incarnation of Sahiba, seems neither willful, nor intelligent and forget ambitious. The fault cannot entirely lie with the (missing) acting skills of the actress playing her. From the moment adult Soochi made her appearance, all I knew about her as a person was that she loves her father who taught her lines from Shakespeare, is engaged to a handsome Prince, and really knows how to condition those wild curls. I see her returning from some phoren land as young women in a certain kind of film often do, but I haven't the slightest clue what she was doing there. Or what she plans to do back in India other than drink champagne by the poolside and learn horse riding.

ROMP reminds us of the old legend by intercepting the modern narrative with scenes from the past. It is easier to identify with Sahiba in those ancient settings. It is conceivable that a young woman in that barbaric patriarchal tribe would have her life defined by the men around her. Her conflict when the man she loves must clash with her brothers is palpable. That makes get betrayal understandable, which is at the very core of the Mirza-Sahiba tragedy.

The very same things seem difficult to relate in the modern sections. Soochita is not exactly an oppressed female in the way Sahiba was. She is a (phoren) educated woman. She could have nicely and gently broken up the engagement. It can't be unheard of even in modern day royal families. She could have used words. Her father is not a tribal chief. He is a gentle, loving man who recites Shakespeare. Her fiancé is a sensitive, intelligent man. She does not offer him the courtesy of truth about her childhood love. By the end, I found myself sympathizing more with the Prince than the runaway couple.

And the Mirza of this story. What of the fact that he is a murderer? Does Soochita even know this, or did her loving father shield her from the truth somehow? What does that mean for this great eternal romance? How would she feel about her dear Munish of she knew? And what does it say about Soochita that she let these three men of her life become enemies? Or if she does know about the murder and still wants to marry that guy, what the hell is wrong with her?

The Sahiba of legend found her fate hanging in between a tug of war between the men she loved. Her great crime was that she did not remain a passive spectator.

Mehra's Sahiba, by refusing to use her words, led her men to a completely avoidable battle. Passivity is exactly her crime.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Ground Zero Report on JNU Issue - only for fence sitters

Here's an article in Marathi by Mr Jayant Kumar Sonavane that I am taking the liberty to publish here in full without any edits from my side. I know some you probably have made up your mind on the issue, and nothing I or anyone says will change your mind. Those of you don't need to read this. I'm publishing it here for the people who maybe haven't yet taken sides, who wish to hear what could possibly drive so many people to side with JNU students and Kanhaiya Kumar on this issue, who have the patience to read and familiarize themselves with the nuance of the events that led up to this mess, and who can hopefully read and understand Marathi.

Without further comment...

Ground Zero Report on JNU Issue

by Jayant Kumar Sonavane

नवी दिल्लीच्या महरौली-वसंतकुंज भागात वसलेलं जवाहरलाल नेहरू विद्यापीठ अर्थात JNU सध्या देशभरात चर्चेचा विषय बनलं आहे. अर्थात ते आधी चर्चेचा विषय नव्हतं अशातला भाग नाही. ह्या वर्षात पहिल्यांदा चर्चेत राहिलं ते केंद्रीय मानव संसाधन मंत्रालयाने उच्चशिक्षणासाठी फेलोशिप बंद केल्याच्या विरोधात “Occupy UGC” ह्या आंदोलनाबद्दल; दुसऱ्यांदा चर्चेत आलं ते हैदराबाद सेन्ट्रल विद्यापीठाच्या रोहीथ वेम्युला आत्महत्या (?) प्रकरणात केंद्रीय मानव संसाधन मंत्रालयावर नेलेल्या मोर्चाबद्दल; तिसरा मुद्दा, दि. ९ फेब्रुवारीच्या संध्याकाळी JNU कैम्पसमध्ये झालेल्या देशविरोधी घोषणाबाजीमुळे. ९ फेब्रुवारी ते आज १७ फेब्रुवारी ह्या गेल्या आठ दिवसात उतावळ्या मिडिया ट्रायल्समधून भारतातील सर्वांत नामांकित विद्यापीठ म्हणून लौकिक असलेली जनमानसातील प्रतिमा जावून ‘दहशतवाद्यांचा अड्डा’ अशी झाली. देशात राहणाऱ्या प्रत्येकाला मत मांडण्याचा, प्रदर्शित करण्याचा अधिकार आहे त्यानुसार अनेकांनी राष्ट्रीय भावनिक लाटेवर स्वार होत मिडिया ट्रायल्सच्या ‘ओ’ला ‘हो’ जोडत JNU बंद करा म्हणून तगादा लावला. प्रथमदर्शनी या संपूर्ण प्रकाराबाबत एक संदिग्धता वाटत होती, मिडीयात ज्या अविवेकी पद्धतीने JNU बाबत वक्तव्ये होत होती (आजही-आताही होत आहेत) त्यामुळे त्या संदिग्धतेला बळकटी प्राप्त होत होती म्हणून शेवटी संपूर्ण प्रकरण समजावून घेण्यासाठी पुन्हा JNU गाठलं, ९ तारखेच्या घटनेपासून परवाच्या पटियाला हाऊस कोर्ट मारहाण प्रकरणाच्या अनेक प्रत्यक्षदर्शी विद्यार्थ्यांशी चर्चा केली; त्याचा हा ‘ग्राउंड झिरो रिपोर्ट’!
मागच्या काही महिन्यांपूर्वी JNU कैम्पस मधील DSF (डेमोक्रेटिक स्टूडेंट्स फेडरेशन) मधून काही विद्यार्थी वैचारिक मतभेदांमुळे बाहेर पडले, ज्यात ओमर खालिद पण होता. दि. ९ फेब्रुवारी रोजी संध्याकाळी साडेपाच वाजता साबरमती हॉस्टेलसमोरील पटांगणावर ओमर खालिद आणि त्याच्या सात ते आठ सहकाऱ्यांनी “Country without Post Office” हा सांस्कृतिक कार्यक्रम आयोजित केला होता ज्यात ‘Debate on Judicial Killing’ हा एक वादविवादाचा मुद्दा ठेवण्यात आला होता. विद्यापीठाच्या नियमानुसार अटींची पूर्तता करण्याचे वचन देवून दि. ७ रोजी सकाळी कुलगुरूंच्या कार्यालयातून या कार्यक्रमाला परवानगी दिली गेली. त्याच दिवशी दुपारपर्यंत ह्या कार्यक्रमाचे आयोजक असलेल्या आठ ते नऊ विद्यार्थ्यांच्या नाव आणि सहीचे प्रसिद्धीपत्रक JNU मध्ये वाटले गेले. (‘Country without Post Office’ हा काश्मीरी वंशाचे अमेरिकन कवी आगा शाहीद अली यांचा कवितासंग्रह आहे.) कार्यक्रम सुरु होण्याच्या एक तास आधी कुलगुरू कार्यालयातून हा कार्यक्रम रद्द करण्याची सूचना आली, आयोजकांनी कुलगुरूंना याबाबत विचारणा केली असता ABVP ने यासंदर्भात तक्रार केली असल्याचे निष्पन्न झाले. यावर कुलगुरू कार्यालयातून एक कारण देण्यात आले ते म्हणजे ‘ह्या कार्यक्रमादरम्यान अनुचित प्रकार घडण्याची संभावना आहे, यामुळे परवानगी नाकारण्यात येत आहे.’ पाच वाजता कार्यक्रमाच्या नियोजीत स्थळी जमलेल्या काश्मिरी विद्यार्थ्यांमध्ये संतापाची भावना तयार झाली आणि त्यांनी त्यांच्या विशिष्ट पद्धतीने शिट्ट्या मारत झालेल्या प्रकाराबाबत निषेध व्यक्त करायला सुरुवात केली. त्याचवेळी तेथे आधीपासून उपस्थित असलेल्या ABVPच्या गटातून “अफजल जैसी मौत मरा, तुम्हें भी वैसी मौत मारेंगे”, “कश्मीरी देश के गद्दार है, उन्हें पाकिस्तान भेजो” अशी घोषणाबाजी झाली. प्रत्यक्षदर्शी विद्यार्थ्यांच्या सांगण्यानुसार काश्मिरी गटात आणि ABVP अशा दोन्हीही गटात Non-JNU विद्यार्थ्यांची संख्या मोठी होती. वेळ पुढे सरकत होती तशी वातावरणातील तनाव वाढत होता. त्यानंतर कश्मीरी विद्यार्थ्यांच्या गटातून घोषणाबाजी झाली “अफजल हम शरमिंदा है, तेरे कातील जिंदा है!”, “भारत की बरबादी तक, जंग हमारी जारी रहेगी”.... ह्या उत्तर-प्रत्युत्तराच्या घोषणाबाजीनंतर काही काश्मिरी विद्यार्थी आणि काही अभाविप कार्यकर्ते यांच्यात झटापट झाली. तेथे उपस्थित असलेल्या अनेक विद्यार्थ्यांनी आणि JNUSU कौन्सिलर्सनी ह्या दोन्ही पक्षातील विद्यार्थ्यांना घोषणाबाजी रोखण्याची विनंती केली. हा सगळा मुद्दा संपूर्ण भारतात मिडीयाने व्हिडीओसकट पोहोचवला. साबरमती हॉस्टेल पटांगणावर झालेल्या ह्या प्रकारानंतर सर्वांत पहिल्यांदा रिपोर्ट्स आले ते ‘झी न्यूज’ आणि ‘आज तक’वर. प्रत्यक्षदर्शी विद्यार्थ्यांच्या सांगण्यानुसार दुपारच्या चार वाजेपासूनच त्या ठिकाणी या वृत्तवाहिन्यांचे कॅमेरे तैनात होते. वर उल्लेख केलेल्या वृत्तवाहिन्यांसहित सर्वच ‘पान टपरी छाप’ वृत्तवाहिन्यांच्या मिडिया ट्रायल्समधून सरसकट संपूर्ण JNU ला एका रात्रीत ‘आतंकवादी’ जाहीर करण्यात आलं. यानंतर मुद्दा उठतो तो JNUSU चा अध्यक्ष कन्हैया कुमार याच्या अटकेचा...
पहिल्यांदा JNUSU काय आहे हे समजून घेवूयात. आपल्या शाळां आणि कॉलेजेसमध्ये जसे विद्यार्थी मंत्रीमंडळ असते तसंच जवाहरलाल नेहरू विद्यापीठात विद्यापीठाच्या अधिष्ठातांच्या (Dean) कार्यकक्षेअंतर्गत JNUSU- Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union ही अस्थायी संघटना बनवली आहे. चार मुख्य पदाधिकारी आणि विविध विभागांचे (Schools) ३० कौन्सिलर्स असे मिळून सुमारे ३४ सदस्यांची दरवर्षी विद्यार्थ्यांमधून खुल्या निवडणुकांच्या माध्यमातून सदर संघटनेवर निवड करण्यात येते. JNU च्या आवारातील राजकीय-सामाजिक आणि वैचारिक वातावरण निकोप ठेवण्याची नैतिक जबाबदारी ह्या विद्यार्थी प्रतिनिधींवर असते. सन १९६९ पासून आजपर्यंतच्या ५७ वर्षांच्या इतिहासात JNUSU वर नेहमीच डाव्या विचारसरणीच्या AISF- All India Students’ Federation, AISA- All India Students’ Union, SFI- Students’ Federation of India ह्या संघटनांचे वर्चस्व राहिले आहे. विद्यापीठात कॉंग्रेस प्रणीत NSUI- National Students’ Union of India आणि भाजपा प्रणीत ABVP- अखिल भारतीय विद्यार्थी परिषद यांचे नाममात्र अस्तित्व आहे. JNUSU च्या चार मुख्य पदाधिकाऱ्यांपैकी अध्यक्ष कन्हैया कुमार हा AISF चा, उपाध्यक्ष शेहला रशीद आणि मुख्य सचिव नागाजी हे दोघेही AISA आणि सहसचिव सौरभ शर्मा हा ABVP चा सदस्य आहे.
९ फेब्रुवारीची घटना घडली त्याठिकाणी म्हणजे साबरमती हॉस्टेल परिसरात कन्हैयाकुमार आपल्या साथीदारांसोबत सहा-साडे सहाच्या दरम्यान पोहोचला, आपली नैतिक जबाबदारी ओळखून त्याने दोन्हीही पक्षाच्या विद्यार्थ्यांना घोषणाबाजी बंद करण्याची विनंती केली. JNUSU चे कौन्सिलर्स तसेच काही प्राध्यापक आणि विद्यार्थी यांनी मध्यस्थी करून वातावरण शांत केले. साडे पाच ते साडे सात दरम्यान जे काही घडलं ते वृत्तवाहिन्यांच्या कॅमेरा मध्ये टिपलं गेलं आहे. जे स्क्रीनवर पूर्ण आवाजात आणि अनकट स्वरूपात दिसतंय ते सत्य आहे. आणि जर व्हिडीओचा ऑडीओ म्युट न करता, व्हाईसओव्हर न करता ऐकवलं जात असेल तर तेही सत्य आहे.
JNU च्या नियमांनुसार कुलगुरूंना मागेल त्याला कार्यक्रमाची परवानगी देणे बंधनकारक आहे, हे आजपासून नव्हे तर विद्यापीठाच्या स्थापनेपासूनची अखंडित संकेत वा परंपरा आहे. ‘Country without Post Office’ ची परवानगी का नाकारली याची विचारणा कन्हैयाने देखील केली असं काही विद्यार्थ्यांचं म्हणनं आहे. अर्थात त्याच्या जबाबदारी आणि कर्तव्याचा भाग आहे. कुलगुरू कार्यालयातून मिळालेल्या उत्तराने काश्मिरी विद्यार्थ्यांचे समाधान झाले नाही आणि त्यातल्या त्यात ABVP च्या तक्रारीवरून आपल्याविरोधात सूडभावनेने निर्णय घेतला गेला अशी काश्मिरी विद्यार्थ्यांची धारणा झाली. वृत्तवाहिन्यांच्या कॅमेरामागे उभे असलेल्या ABVP च्या कार्यकर्त्यांनी काश्मिरी जनतेविरोधात आणि अफजल गुरु विरोधात घोषणाबाजी केली आणि वादाची ठिणगी पडली, हे प्रत्यक्षदर्शी विद्यार्थ्यांनीही सांगितले आणि मिडिया फुटेजमधूनही स्पष्ट होत आहे. JNU मधील School of Historical Studies मधून M. Phil. करणाऱ्या एका विद्यार्थ्याने सांगितलं की कुलगुरू कार्यालयाने JNUSU च्या कौन्सिलर्सला कारण देताना सांगण्यात आलं की, “JNU के इन्टेलिजेन्स के अनुसार कोई बड़ी अनुचित घटना की आशंका जताई गई है और उसी के आधारपर सावधानी के तौर पर इस प्रोग्रामकी अनुमती रद्द कर दी गई..” मी या विद्यार्थ्याला विचारलं की, “क्या आपने इससे पहले ऐसा रिज़न कभी सुना है जे.एन.यू. में ?” तर यावर त्याने मानेने नकार दिला पुढे आश्चर्य व्यक्त केलं की “JNU इन्टेलिजेन्स नामकी चीज मै पहलीबार सून रहा हुं.”
घटना घडली ती रात्र, दुसरा, तिसरा दिवस आणि तिसऱ्या रात्रीच्या बारा वाजेपर्यंत कन्हैया कुमार, शेहला रशीद, नागजी आणि सौरभ शर्मा हे JNU च्या आवारातून वा वृत्तवाहिन्यांच्या स्टुडीओ मधून मिडिया ट्रायल्सला सामोरे जात होते. यासर्व घटना घडत असतानाच गेल्या १८ दिवसांपासून ‘Justice for Rohith’ हे आंदोलन सुरु होते, या आंदोलनाचा भाग म्हणून सुमारे दहा ते बारा विद्यार्थी उपोषणाला बसले होते. दि. ११ फेब्रुवारीच्या संध्याकाळी कन्हैयाने मिडिया ट्रायल्स मधून JNU च्या करण्यात आलेल्या मानहानीबाबत निंदा केली आणि देशद्रोही घोषणाबाजीच्या विरोधात त्याची आणि JNUSU ची भूमिका स्पष्ट केली. दुसऱ्या दिवशी दि. १२ रोजी सकाळी कन्हैयाचे भाषण व्हायरल झाले.
दि. १२ फेब्रुवारी पर्यंत कन्हैया, शेहला, नागजी आणि सौरभ हे चौघे मिडियामध्ये आपापल्या भूमिका मांडत असताना ज्यांच्या कार्यक्रमात हा प्रकार घडला ते काश्मिरी विद्यार्थी कुठे गेले? दि. ९ आणि १० रोजी ओमर खालिद आणि काही काश्मिरी विद्यार्थी आपले मत मांडण्यासाठी वृत्तवाहिन्यांच्या विनंतीवरून डिबेटमध्ये सहभागी झाले त्यावेळी अर्नब गोस्वामी, दीपक चौरसिया, सरदाना इ. यांच्या एकांगी भोकाडबाजीमुळे घोषणाबाजीबाबत मत मांडायला कश्मीरी विद्यार्थ्यांना पुरेसा वेळ मिळू शकला नाही, त्यांचे म्हणणे ऐकून न घेता फक्त भावनिक आवरण चढवून त्यांना दहशतवादी ठरवण्याचा फार्स करण्यात आला म्हणून त्यांनी दि. ११ पासून कुठल्याही मिडीयाला कुठल्याही प्रकारे सामोरे न जाण्याचा निर्णय घेतला. १२ तारखेला दिल्ली पूर्व चे भाजपा खासदार महेश गिरी यांनी ‘JNU हा दहशतवाद्यांचा अड्डा आहे’ अशी FIR दाखल करत केंद्राकडून कठोर कारवाईची विनंती केली. याआधी दोन आंदोलनांत JNUच्या विद्यार्थ्यांनी मानव संसाधन विकास मंत्रालयाला टार्गेट केले होते, १२ तारखेलाच स्मृती इराणी यांनी JNU संदर्भात जाहीर वक्तव्य केले; आणि गेल्या चार दिवसांपासून मिडिया जाणीवपूर्वक अतार्किक आणि अतांत्रिक मुद्दे पुढे करत JNUची आणि विशेषतः डाव्या विद्यार्थी संघटनांची बदनामी करत होती, त्यावरून १२ तारखेच्या संध्याकाळी JNUमध्ये पोलीस अटकसत्र राबवू शकते अशी कुणकुण AISA, SFI आणि AISFच्या कार्यकर्त्यांना लागली होती. AISF वगळता सगळे सक्रीय कौन्सिलर्स आणि कार्यकर्ते JNUमधून बाहेर पडले. काहींनी कन्हैयालाही बाहेर जाण्याचा सल्ला दिला, पण ज्यात आपली काही चूक नाही त्या लफड्यापासून दूर का पळावं म्हणून तो कैम्पसमधेच थांबला. १३ तारखेच्या पहाटे २ वाजता कन्हैयाला पोलिसांनी अटक केली. रात्रीच्या दोन वाजता कोणतेही राजशिष्टाचार न पाळता महिला-पुरुष होस्टेल्सची झडती घेण्यात आली. कैम्पसमध्ये असलेल्या कोणत्याही डाव्या विद्यार्थी संघटनेच्या कार्यकर्त्याला अटक न करता फक्त कन्हैयाकुमारला अटक करण्यात आली.
प्रथमदर्शनी घटनाक्रमातून काही प्रश्न उपस्थित होतात,
- देशविरोधी घोषणा दिल्या गेल्या, ज्यांच्या कार्यक्रमात आणि ज्यांनी फूस लावून हा प्रकार घडवून आणला त्या ओमार खालिद व कंपनी आणि ABVP यांना अटक न करता कन्हैया कुमारला का अटक करण्यात आली?
- ‘Country without Post Office’ ह्या कार्यक्रमात Non-JNU काश्मिरी विद्यार्थी सहभागी होवून कायदा- सुव्यवस्था आणि सुरक्षेचा प्रश्न उपस्थित होईल म्हणून ABVPने कुलगुरूंकडे तक्रार केली, पण ABVPच्या गटात देखील Non-JNU चेहरे होते त्यांना कोणतं लेबल लावायचं?
- रात्रीच्या दोन वाजता देशाच्या एका प्रीमिअर इंस्टीट्युटमध्ये सर्व प्रोटोकॉल्स धाब्यावर बसवून एका विद्यार्थी प्रतिनिधीला अटक करण्यात येते, विद्यापीठ यंत्रणेने यात काहीच हस्तक्षेप करू नये? (डॉ. पार्थसारथी कुलगुरू असताना आणीबाणीच्या काळातही त्यांनी पोलिसांना विद्यापीठाच्या आत येण्यास मज्जाव करून विद्यापीठात घडणाऱ्या कुठल्याही घटनेची नैतिक जबाबदारी स्विकारण्याची भूमिका घेतली होती.) JNU च्या ४७ वर्षांच्या इतिहासात पहिल्यांदाच कैम्पसमध्ये पोलीस येवून विद्यार्थ्याला अटक झाली.
- राष्ट्रीय मिडियातून JNUची बदनामी होत असताना त्याविरोधात किमान स्टेटमेंट देण्याची साधनसुचिता कुलगुरूंना अथवा विद्यापीठाच्या प्रशासकीय यंत्रणेला पाळता आली नाही का?
हे प्रश्न JNUच्या सामान्य विद्यार्थ्यांनी उपस्थित केले आहेत.
कन्हैयावर लावलेले गुन्हे न्यायालयाने अमान्य केले आहेत. कोर्टातील गुंडांनी, भाजपा आमदार व त्याच्या समर्थकांनी केलेली मारहाण, कायदा हातात घेण्याची भाषा आणि दुसरीकडे अगदी सुरुवातीपासून भारतीय संविधानावर आपला अगाध विश्वास असल्याचा कन्हैया करत असलेला दावा बघता, आणि तो ज्या पद्धतीने या सर्व कार्यवाहीला सामोरा जात आहे त्यातून त्याची आणि एकुणात JNUची प्रतिमा उजळ होत आहे.
कन्हैयाला अटक झाल्यानंतर ओमर खालिद आणि त्याच्या सहकाऱ्यांनी कैम्पसमधून काढता पाय घेतला. ह्या घटनेचे मूळ जिथे आहे त्यावर नजर फिरवली तर कन्हैया ची अटक ही अतार्किक आहे हे सामान्य बुद्धिमत्तेचा कोणताही व्यक्ती मान्य करेल. कन्हैयाला अटक झाल्यानंतर देशाच्या गृहमंत्र्याने विधान केले की “कन्हैयाला हाफिज सईदचा पाठींबा आहे.” दोन दिवसांपूर्वी भारताच्या गुप्तेहेर यंत्रणेने (IB) भारत सरकारला दिलेल्या अहवालानुसार कन्हैयाचे हाफिज सईदशी कुठलेही धागेदोरे मिळत नाहीयेत. ह्या अहवालासोबतच अजून एक अहवाल सरकारला सादर करण्यात आला त्यानुसार ओमर खालिदला काश्मीरमधील जैश-ए-महोम्मद या फुटीरतावादी संघटनेचा पाठींबा आहे, तर हा दुसरा अहवाल सरकारने अमान्य केल्याची प्राथमिक माहिती समोर येत आहे. भारत सरकारने कन्हैयाच्या अटकेसाठी केलेला आततायीपणा आणि दुसरीकडे ओमर खलीदच्या बाबतीत घेत असलेला बचावात्मक पावित्रा स्पष्टपणे सरकारच्या अथवा सरकार चालवणाऱ्यांच्या ‘motives’ला अधोरेखित करत आहे.
- ‘जैश-ए-महोम्मद’ या संघटनेचे जम्मू आणि काश्मीर राज्यातील बहुमतातील PDP ह्या पक्षाशी मैत्रीपूर्ण संबंध आहेत.
- एकीकडे राष्ट्रवादाचा नारा देत भाजपाने जम्मू आणि काश्मीरमध्ये PDP ह्या फुटीरतावादी पक्षाशी हातमिळवणी करून सत्ता स्थापन केली होती.
- जम्मू आणि काश्मीरचे मुख्यमंत्री मुफ्ती महोम्मद यांच्या निधनानंतर राज्यात नवीन सरकार बनले नाहीये, आणि मेहबूबा मुफ्ती सरकार स्थापनेबाबत कोणताही ठोस संकेत देत नाहीयेत त्यामुळे दिवसेंदिवस भाजपा गटातील चुळबुळ वाढत आहे.
- JNUचा विद्यार्थी ओमर खालिद (ज्याचे ‘जैश-ए-महोम्मद’सोबत संबंध असल्याचा IBचा रिपोर्ट होता) त्याला अटक झाली तर जम्मू आणि काश्मीरमध्ये भाजपाविरोधात जनमत तयार होऊन PDPसोबतच्या सत्तेच्या वाटाघाटी फिस्कटू शकतात.
- ओमरला अटक झाली तर आसाम आणि उत्तरप्रदेशातील मुस्लिम मतांचे ध्रुवीकरण होऊन भाजपाच्या प्रतिमेवर त्याचा नकारात्मक प्रभाव पडू शकतो, त्यामुळे सरकार ओमरच्या ऐवजी कन्हैयाला टार्गेट करून बळीचा बकरा बनवत होती. पण न्यायालयाच्या निर्णयाने सरकारच्या मनसुब्यांवर पाणी फेरले अशी चर्चा JNUमध्ये अथवा नवी दिल्लीच्या राजकीय वर्तुळात रंगत आहे.
- कन्हैयाला अटक करण्यामागे पूर्ववैमनस्याचा भाग ग्राह्य धरायचा म्हटला तर कन्हैया हा JNUमधला School of International Studies च्या African Study Centreला शिकणारा अजातशत्रू विद्यार्थी म्हणून त्याची पहिली इमेज समोर येते. ह्याच इमेजच्या आधारावर यंदाच्या JNUSUच्या निवडणुकीत AISFने फक्त एकच- अध्यक्षपदाची निवडणूक लढवली आणि बहुमतांनी ती जागा निवडून आणली. कन्हैयाच्या अटकेनंतर ज्याप्रकारे भाजपाने आणि सरकारने विषय हाताळला त्याचा निषेध म्हणून ABVPच्या JNU युनिटच्या ३ पदाधिकाऱ्यांनी दिलेला राजीनामा खूप काही सांगून जातो.
- कन्हैयाला अटक करण्यामागे भाजपा गोटात JNUतील मुक्त वातावरणाबद्दल, डाव्या विद्यार्थी चळवळीबद्दल असलेला आकसही दिसून येतो. अटकेनंतर आणि कोर्टाचा निर्णय यायच्या आधी ABVP आणि भाजपा गोटातून ज्याप्रकारच्या टिप्पण्या आल्या त्यातून त्यांचा रोख त्याच दिशेने होता.
JNUच्या निमित्ताने माझ्याही मनात उठलेला एक प्रश्न मी प्रत्येकाला विचारून त्यांची मतं घेत होतो. “क्या यूनिवर्सिटी या किसीभी शैक्षणिक संस्थान में पढ़ते समय राजनीतिक मामलोंमे दखलंदाजी करना आपको सही लगता है?” जे.एन.यु.च्या प्रशासकीय ब्लॉकपासून पेरियार हॉस्टेलकडे पायवाटेने जाताना सोबतच्या एका विद्यार्थ्याला विचारलेला हा पहिला प्रश्न. त्यावर तो उद्गारला, “बेशक सर! शैक्षणिक जीवन में राजनीतिक घटनाओंपर सोचविचार होना, बहस होना-डिबेट होना बहुत जरुरी है; मैं यह कहूँगा की यह एक सक्रीय विद्यार्थी जीवन का अंग है |” मग मी त्याला प्रतिप्रश्न केला, “लेकिन राजनीती और पढाई दोनों तो अलग बातें है, आप इनका संबंध कैसे जोड़ सकते है?” यावर तो हसला आणि म्हणाला, “बहुत गहरा ताल्लुख है, अगर राजनीती कर रहे नेताओंने जरासी भी पढाई की होती तो इस बारके सालाना शिक्षा बजट में कटौती नहीं होती, फ़ेलोशिप बंद नहीं होती,” तोच पुढे बोलू लागला, “राजनीती कहां नही होती? घर हो या हॉस्टल, पोलिटिक्स तो हर जगह है ना... जैसे हम अपने परिवार को एकोनोमिक्स का सबसे छोटा युनिट समझते है, वैसेही युनिवर्सिटी राजनीतिक मामलो का स्मोलेस्ट युनिट समझ लिजीये.” एम.ए.च्या दुसऱ्या वर्गात शिकणाऱ्या ह्या मित्राची राजकीय समज ऐकून एकुणात त्याच्या आजूबाजूला वावरणाऱ्या विद्यार्थ्यांच्याही बौद्धिक कुवतीचा अंदाज बांधला. पुढे सेन्ट्रल लायब्ररी समोरील मेसमध्ये School of International Relation मध्ये शिकणाऱ्या सौरभ, राशी आणि इरफान यांच्याशी रोहीथ वेम्युलासंदर्भातील ‘Justice for Rohith’ या आंदोलनाच्या भविष्याबाबत चर्चा झाली. सौरभ म्हणाला की, “JNU मधली आंदोलनं म्हणजे फक्त नारेबाजी नसते. Passive Resistance च्या नीतीने आंदोलनं केली जातात, त्याचाच एक भाग म्हणून रोहित वेम्युला ते कन्हैया कुमार प्रकरणात अधोरेखित झालेल्या ‘राष्ट्रवादा’वर JNUमधील जेष्ठ प्राध्यापक, विचारवंत आणि सामाजिक कार्यकर्ते विद्यार्थ्यांचा पाठ घेणार आहेत. यात जेष्ठ इतिहासकार रोमिला थापर, ई.एस.अच्युतानंद, जानकी नायर, निवेदिता मेनन इ. ‘राष्ट्रवाद’ या विषयावर खुला पाठ घेणार आहेत. मुळची चंडीगडची असलेली राशी सांगत होती की, “JNUच्या प्रशासकीय इमारतीच्या समोर खुल्या पटांगणात ही सगळी व्याख्याने होतात, यात सर्वच विचारसरणीचे विद्यार्थी सहभागी होवून खुल्या चर्चेद्वारे विचारमंथन करतात.” School of Historical Studies मध्ये M. Phil. करणारा नील निर्दोष कुमार म्हटला की, “मी वैयक्तिक कुठल्याही विचारसरणीला बांधील नसलो तरी रोहित वेम्युला प्रकरणाबाबत मलाही तीव्र दुःख झाले आहे, आणि JNUच्या घोषणाबाजीचं प्रकरण ज्या पद्धतीने मिडिया आणि सरकारी पातळीवर हाताळलं जातंय ते निव्वळ जनतेची दिशाभूल करणारे आहे.”
गेल्या सात दिवसांत झी न्यूज, एबीपी न्यूज, आज तक, टाईम्स नाऊ इ. वृत्तवाहिन्यांनी कुठलेही सत्यशोधन न करता सरळ सरळ “जे.एन.यू. बना आतंकियोंका अड्डा” अशी अविवेकी विधाने प्रसारित केलीत. हनुमनथप्पाच्या मृत्यूच्या घटनेचे जे.एन.यू. प्रकरणाला फैब्रिकेशन करण्यात आले. सत्यशोधनाच्या ऐवजी देशभक्तीच्या परीक्षा पाहणारे असंबद्ध प्रश्न विचारून JNU ची बाजू मांडणाऱ्यांची बोलती बंद कशी राहील या अजेंडाने मिडिया डिबेट्स घडवून आणल्या गेल्या. भारतात आपण कर भरतो म्हणून आपल्याला संविधानातील मुलभूत कर्तव्यांतून मुक्ती मिळाली आहे आणि संपूर्ण देश फक्त आपल्याच पैशावर चालतोय आणि आमच्या पैशांवर शिकणाऱ्यांनी फक्त चुपचाप शिकून घ्यावं, आम्ही उदार मनाने आरक्षण ह्या देशात ठेवलंय म्हणून आमच्या उपकारात राहावं, अशी भावना भारतातील जवळ जवळ ६० टक्के; सामाजिक-राजकीय आणि अर्थशास्त्राच्या जमजुतीत Lag असणाऱ्यांच्या मनात निर्माण झाली. अर्थात यात दोष त्यांच्या मानसिकता, विचारसरणी अथवा बुद्धीचा नाही तर त्यांच्या पर्यंत पोहोचवल्या गेलेल्या फैब्रीकेटेड माहितीचा.
- जयंतकुमार सोनवणे

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Aligarh trailer and the Punjabiyat of Ranjit Katiyal

So the trailer for Hansal Mehta’s upcoming film Aligarh is finally out, and the fact that I happen to have watched the film a few months ago does nothing to temper my excitement. In fact having loved it at MAMI, I feel somewhat invested in the film's commercial fate. This story based on true events deserves to be told, and it could not have been in better hands than the superb cast and crew of Aligarh. If you haven't watched the trailer, drop everything and watch it on the Eros website right now.


I'll spare you any details about the story until its release, but allow me to wax on a neat little detail, already revealed in the trailer.


Like the real life professor on whose story it is based, Manoj Bajpai’s Prof Siraj in the film is in his 60s, and teaches Marathi at the Aligarh University. At one point he laments that this adds to his isolation in this Urdu dominated city (besides his sexual orientation).


One of the many things that sets this film apart from the Bollywood mainstream is this choice of a central protagonist. When was the last time you saw a soft spoken, ageing, middle class Marathi man of slight stature at the centre of a Hindi film?


And this isn't just because of the “based on real events” tag on the film. In adapting real events or books, filmmakers have the creative freedom to change some details of character, and they do it all the time. In the film adaptation of The Martian, the character of Venkat Kapoor is modified into the African-American Vincent Kapoor, perhaps because they wanted Chiwetel Ejiofor to play him. And who can blame them? He was amazing.


In the more recently released Airlift however, I'm a little disappointed in the film's decision to fuse two real life heroes from Kerala into one Punjabi Akshay Kumar. Why did AK's character in the film have to be a Ranjit Katiyal, the strapping Punjabi savior of a predominantly Keralite Indian population stuck in the middle of a warzone in the Gulf? If it was because the makers were keen to have AK play the part, it was perhaps wise not to make him bumble with an accent.


In doing so however, the film loses out on quite a bit of the kind of nuance that can add texture to the narrative, and sometimes make for some delicious cinematic moments.


This is not a social rant, but one about a creative choice. Nor does it make Airlift a bad film. The film works beautifully within its own universe, but a little more authenticity could have made it so much more. A stray observation on the Kerala-Gulf connection. Some harmless cultural humor. A slight Sidin Vadukut touch, maybe.


Granted, the film is not about any of these things. It is a tight thriller with a very focused storyline. Then again, would it have been any less tight or focused with a Malayali family at its centre? Haven't we had enough Punjabi NRIs in our films?


Cultural details add value to such stories. What would Munnabhai’s confrontations with Dr Asthana be without those Bambaiyya potshots? An street ruffian with a heart of gold in a medical college. What would Piku be if Bhashkor wasn't so Bengali? An ageing, intellectual Bengali hypochondriac in Delhi.


And when you watch Aligarh, ask yourself what that film would be if Manoj Bajpai’s Siraj wasn't so Marathi. A homosexual Marathi poet teaching in a Muslim University.

Like Aligarh, the source material for Airlift afforded it the opportunity for a protagonist who would be unusual for a Hindi film, but the more engaging for it. A Malayali Christian businessman in Kuwait. Sadly, for whatever reasons, the makers chose not to use it.