It is 50 years since 1967, when the Congress party lost power in nine states and Tamil Nadu, among those, remains out of its grasp even now. The Bharathiya Janata Party, which supplanted the Congress, elsewhere since then, too has found Tamil Nadu a different ball game. Remarks by its leader here, involving Vijay starrer Mersal has put the party on the mat.
The BJP’s trouble began almost a year ago when its notion of the nation and the national was challenged on the streets across the state for jallikattu, the provocation this time is the party’s threat to disrupt screening of mersal as long as some remarks critical of the Goods and Service Tax (GST) were not deleted from the script. And with a state government that exists only for the records, there seems a return to the 1965 days in Tamil Nadu.
Well. The polity in Tamil Nadu has changed a lot from what it was half a century ago. But then, two things have not. The pride among its people drawing out of the sub-national and cinema as a vehicle for expression of the people and their minds. This is so despite the advent of a set of tools and technology in the realm of the social media which has enabled mass communication of messages in real time. But then cinema belongs to another league of mass communication tools; unlike the rest of the social media tools, cinema makes it possible to communicate a story where facts and fantasies are laced into an amalgam. The only other form that can be compared here is the novel.
The novel, a literary form that emerged in the wake of the Protestant revolt in Europe alongside the transition from the Middle Ages to modernity played a decisive role in destroying the social norms. Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, told the story of the pathos and the prejudices that marked the lives of the poor people; and when it was adapted to a film in Tamil (The Plight of the Poor), it struck a chord in distant Tamil Nadu making the characters immortal. I should recount this: Whenever I mention this classic to my students and this I did even a few months ago (after I read Hugo for the umpteenth time now), they recall having watched a cinema sometime and that they had not read the novel as such. Let me also recall a similar story as and when I talk about Charlie Chaplin and his Great Dictator continues to help me make sense of the rise of fascism in Germany in the 1930s better than putting them through volumes of historical works on it.
Well. Cinema is a medium that puts the whole story of an event or an issue in a capsule form and it helps shrink a long time period in just a couple of hours or even less. Shyam Benegal’s Ankur, for instance takes the viewer through two generations of people and justice achieved in the end after all the pathos and injustice that meets the oppressed. The legend of Spartacus, recreated into a film conveys more than all the narratives in print, reading of which mandates many months of leisure that an academic may have but inconceivable to those who need that time to labour hard and keep themselves alive.
It is not surprising then that Rahul Gandhi could strike a chord when he associated the GST with Gabbar Singh, a character made immortal by Amjad Khan in one of those all-time great cinema, Sholay. The idea of justice that the police Inspector in Sholay seeks to effect engaging two undertrial prisoners held for petty crimes -- Jay and Veeru – in Sholay helped the people, who thronged the cinema halls then (and let me confess that I ended up watching it 32 times and still continue and have lost count of the numbers), to represent society in binary terms as good and bad.
Maniratnam’s Nayakan too posed this in a nuanced form: The underworld don as the victim of an unjust order and the scene where his young grand-daughter asking her grandfather as to whether he was a good man or a bad man! And even if the protagonist refuses a direct answer, the audience could never imagine their hero (Kamal in this case) as a bad man. The angry young man, whether it be the character that Vijay portrays in Mersal or Allu Arjun in Telugu cinema (most of them being dubbed in Malayalam now and showing all over literate Kerala) is evidence of the sense of helplessness that our democratic polity is in and the quest among its people for justice. It was Amitabh Bachchan in another time and the angry young man when the youth in India were angry with what they saw around them. After a while, when we saw the young in our midst more like those in Dil Chahta Hai, fascinated with vacations and leisure alone, the generation next is once again angry with what they see in their midst. In a way, they are what as they were portrayed in Hazaaron Quaish Aise Thee, which was more of a parallel cinema as it was made and yet appreciated by a whole lot of the youth, both boys and girls and especially those who were privileged with higher and professional education.
The fact that cinema, inherently is equipped to fantasise and throw up a solution is what makes it the most consumed social media. The world-wide-web, no doubt takes news and views to one’s own hands and with competition among the operators increasing by the day, data is now available free; while people have to spend money to buy the tickets and more to reach halls to watch a cinema. But then, the web does not let one have the entire story in a capsule form, where facts are twined with the imagination to strike a chord with the audience and the images etched in one’s mind. Who, at least those over 50 years of age in our midst, will not associate a young lad sporting a beard will refuse to associate it with a failed affair as immortalised by Devdas?
Let me also add that it does not strike a chord with a generation of the present to whom all affairs need not necessarily end in a marriage! And Devdas II, for obvious reasons, did not hit it off among the young men even while L.K.Advani, a film buff in his own right and Union Home Minister then, took time off to watch this version too.
The trouble that the BJP’s leadership in Tamil Nadu had with Mersal is not that they read it wrong and ended up stirring the hornet’s nest. H. Raja, indeed got it right. The GST, even if it was everyone’s baby, affected the lives of the people across the spectrum; and the robust healthcare system that Tamil Nadu could boast is indeed crumbling in recent years with governance having turned nobody’s business even while the state has a government for the records. Raja and his partymen knew this nexus and also the impact of such a dialogue in the film. They may have served their ends better if they had not raised the dust and pitted themselves against the people and ensured that the film was watched even by those who may not have done so otherwise! But then, history is about what happened and mersal is hence history.
(The writer teaches history at the Sikkim University, Gangtok)