WHEN FEEL-GOOD DOESN'T FEEL RIGHT
Despite its thoroughly entertaining exposition and great period detailing (how I’d love going back to the computer/mobile-free ‘80s with just two state-manufactured cars, HMT watches and all the inconveniences of the License Raj! But that’s misplaced idealism too…), something about Neeraj Pandey’s Special 26 left me feeling disturbed.
Of course it was fun to see a bunch of ordinary-looking conmen dupe the corrupt and get away with it. But these men are part of the same system––no Robin Hood type philanthropic bones under their skin––and the fact that they thrive in it, ironically reaffirms its effectiveness. The filmmaker’s recognition, nay acceptance, of corruption and moral depravation as an inevitable aspect of India’s progress is implicit in the narrative. Unlike, say, Dibakar Banerjee who is angry and helpless about the erosion of socio-political institutions (Shanghai) or Vishal Bharadwaj (Matru Ki Bijli Ka Mandola) who gets drunk and laughs at them before delivering a cop-out end because he can’t cope with the ugliness of it all, Pandey’s frustration (?) is channelled into exploiting existing patterns and structures to the extent that serves the protagonists’ purpose and still makes the audience feel good.
But how does it work?
Like in Rajkumar Hirani’s self-satisfied comedies (barring Lage Raho Munnabhai to a large extent, but more on that later), the engagement with real issues in both A Wednesday and Special 26 is superficial and in that, an accurate reflection of us, the middle-class, who have reaped the benefits of liberalisation and succumbed far too easily to consumerism and the good life at the cost of our morals. We love these films because we see ourselves in them. Yes, even Munnabhai who is a gangster or Rancho, the disadvantaged son of a domestic helper (both belong to groups we don’t like, but they echo our concerns and speak our language), are ultimately cinematic reflections of the educated class, who have the vantage point and the luxury to comprehend what ails our society, but lack the will or the commitment to do anything about it. Their understanding of and proposed solutions for urgent issues are as wishy-washy as our own.
All these protagonists––Munna, Rancho, the nameless common man of A Wednesday and Ajay of Special 26––are prototypes rather than fleshed out characters we can connect with in the same way that we felt drawn towards the best-realised manifestation of the ‘angry young man’ in Deewaar, or even the inhabitants of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s humanist middle cinema, which focussed on the ticks and foibles of individuals in families like ours (infusing them with the goodness we weren’t always capable of and hence idealised) but rarely extended his scope beyond the threshold of the home.
In Deewaar, the hero is the disillusioned product of a problematic nation. But while he’s a mascot, he’s also a pulsating human being with a strong emotional core. We feel his angst and suffer with him, not merely as a symbolic figure but as a lived entity whose heroism is a residue of his father’s idealism, and his downfall a reflection of the India he lives in. The writers (Salim-Javed), while glorifying his anguish, don’t justify his actions. There is a reason why Vijay must die in Deewaar. A person who is wronged by the system may turn cynical and abuse it to elevate himself from his unfortunate circumstances, but if he gets away with it in the end, the filmmaker exposes his own cynicism or then, his inability to cope with reality.
In Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s gentle comedies––Chupke Chupke, Golmaal, Khubsoorat––there is absolutely no engagement with the system. He is putting human nature itself under the microscope and examining its potential for goodness and ability to transform. Comparing Hirani’s cinema to Mukherjee’s unpretentious idealism is a mistake because Hirani isn’t telling us stories about endearing families. He is talking about the endemic problems of a society that have become too overwhelming to cope with on a daily basis.
Yes, humour is a good way of deflecting the tension. And in that, Lage Raho Munnabhai succeeds by blending well-meaning idealism with comedy and offering a ray of hope in dark times. It’s far-fetched to think that any one of us has the capacity to live the Gandhian way (unless there’s a ‘chemical imbalance’), but the film suggests that if at all we ever felt the need to strain our conscience a little, we already know the right thing to do.
However Hirani glosses over the fact that Munnabhai is a goon and before he embraced Gandhian values, has been a public nuisance and threatened, coerced, lied and cheated in far more harmful ways than the cutesy deception of inherently good-natured (even though affluent) but eccentric old men and women in Mukherjee’s cinema. The Munnabhai films ignore the problematic aspects of the protagonist’s personality––and deny the consequences of his past misdeeds.
3 Idiots denies Rancho a personality at all, reducing him to a Messiah who came from nowhere and changed the world (which the “Kahan se aaya tha woh” song reinforces). And worse, it ignores his lying (by assuming someone else’s identity) and merely shows that an exceptional (read unreal) hero can top and topple a faulty education system. But how purposefully does the film engage with the real crises of education and parenting and search for identity? If only it were enough to pat your chest and keep intoning "All izz well"!
Now to Neeraj Pandey’s films, both of which, have things in common. In A Wednesday, a disgruntled old man, frustrated with systemic apathy decides to take matters into his own hands and claims he has planted bombs at the police headquarters and various other places around the city. He truly is a symbol and hence the writer-director doesn’t even give him a name or any sense of personality beyond the invisible presence of a wife who worries about his general well-being and nags him about buying vegetables.
Perched on top of a construction site with a bird’s eye view of the city (making us connect immediately with the emotive timbre of the film, if not the protagonist) and equipped with a few mobile phones and a computer, this lone ranger holds the entire police force to ransom, coercing them to take him seriously and follow his instructions rather than bowing meekly before their ineffectual politician bosses. The film articulates this point very well––that the state machinery, which was meant to protect and serve the common man has been hijacked by selfish and powerful people, and unless they are shocked out of complacency there can be no change.
But good intentions alone don’t a good film make. For instance, Pandey neglects to tell us how this ordinary old man went about hatching such a large-scale conspiracy. Anger may well drive us to say in times of despair, “We should grab a gun and shoot these politicians.” The dangerous import of that statement notwithstanding, let’s assume one of us actually decided to do such a thing. How exactly could we have gone about it? Do we have the means or the access to take on the might of the system for immediate retribution? Assuming that we even managed to plot such a conspiracy, would we get away unscathed in the end like the old man does, walking from the scene of crime (after killing three men charged with terrorism and awaiting trial) while the police commissioner looks on with unreserved admiration?
Actions have consequences in the real world and however much we may want to identify with the characters we like, a filmmaker cannot, must not, give them an easy way out merely to make us feel good. It is this single quality that redeems Rakeysh Mehra's Rang De Basanti even though the film is clunky and starts disintegrating towards the end. These youth are impressionable and frustrated and emotionally disturbed following their friend's death. So, in a fit of rage, they decide to kill the politician they hold responsible for his accident. But they don't live on without consequences; they pay for their misplaced heroism with their lives.
In Special 26 the heists themselves are thrilling and the biting comment on contemporary morality very appealing, although once again, the screenplay doesn’t care to elaborate on the gang’s modus operandi. Still, I chuckled gleefully as mountains of ill-gotten wealth was excavated from underneath idols of gods and false ceilings alike. If you loot black money from the corrupt they can’t report it for fear of the repercussions and the clever thieves can keep getting away with it till the real CBI catches up with them.
And that’s the moot point. It’s fun to punch holes into a defective model for cathartic pleasure. But if scamsters become heroes and are portrayed as less harmful to society than politicians (is it perhaps because we are all scamsters of varying degrees in our everyday lives, but have no interest in politics or affirmative action?), we are merely validating one kind of corruption over another. Ill-gotten wealth is ok, so long as it’s not vested in the hands of greedy people we have learnt to despise.
It's also telling that the one honest officer in the CBI who stands firm against the tide of corruption becomes the comic antagonist. Wasim Khan isn't the hero of the film for keeping his integrity or risking his life in a job that doesn't even help ends meet, as would have been the case if the screenplay functioned within an old-fashioned (and now curiously outmoded) ethical paradigm. Instead, we laugh at him and are happy when Ajay outwits him in the end.
The last scene of Special 26 is the most telling of this conundrum––having hoodwinked the CBI and fled the country, Ajay and his team are enjoying a match at the cricket stadium in Sharjah, a place which has come to symbolise the ugliness and perversion of what was once merely a game. The story applauds its winners and places them on the victory stand, while Khan continues toiling (needlessly, you'd think) in his thankless job. It isn't hard to imagine that Ajay would perhaps come back to India one day and legitimise his wealth by starting a company, bid for high-profile contracts, and bribe the system he evidently knows well to become a ‘respectable’ tycoon who hobnobs with the same bunch he once looted. Thus the cycle of debauchery continues and on all accounts the filmmaker doesn't lament it.
So, even as we have a good time at the movies with these 'sensible' entertainers, perhaps we need to pause and ask ourselves, what is it about them that's actually making us feel good?