Sunday, February 1, 2009

“Them” and “Us” from Agra to Mangalore


Anger produces great art – creative anger against injustices and cruelties. Picasso’s “Guernica” was powerful because the artist was deeply moved by the atrocities of Spanish fascism. Vijay Tendulkar became the most forceful playwright of our time because he dared to attack the petty chauvinisms of the Shiv Sena and even that holiest of holy cows, the Poona Brahmin. Some of his plays were violently stopped, but Tendulkar was unstoppable.

Our film-makers have consistently shown courage in attacking the hypocrisies we take for granted. Himansurai tackled untouchability (in “Acchut Kanya”) and K. Subramaniam exposed the illtreatment of widows (“Balayogini”) as early as 1936.

Bollywood was quick to respond to terrorism. “Mumbai Meri Jaan” and “A Wednesday” examined the issues frankly and sensitively. “Shaurya” went further and anticipated the rise of communalism in the armed forces. What was a terrifying possibility on the screen became a terrifying reality on the ground when a colonel was implicated in “Hindu terrorism”.

Communalism is India’s most dangerous and most intractable problem. Tragically it has only been getting more dangerous over the years. Thought-provoking novels and heart-rending movies seem ineffective before vote-bank politics that feed communalism. From M. S. Sathyu’s “Garam Hava” in 1975 to Girish Kasaravalli’s “Gulabi Talkies” in 2008 we seem to have made little progress as a nation. In between, we fared much worse.

Sathyu’s story was set against Partition and the frenzied migration of Muslims to Pakistan and Hindus to India. An old Muslim shoemaker in Agra saw no reason to leave his beloved home in Agra and all the wonderful neighbours and customers he had known for a lifetime. His harrowing experiences and cruel isolation, sensitively sketched by Sathyu and Balraj Sahni, made the film a modern classic.

In historical terms the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat in 2002 was the most traumatic communal explosion since Partition. Rahul Dholakia’s “Parzania” depicted that great tragedy effectively – so effectively that it was never allowed to be shown in Gujarat despite the censor board clearing it. Now Nandita Das has tackled the same theme with great compassion in her “Firaaq”.

Kasaravalli’s latest creation shows that, as a country, we are where we were in 1975.Outwardly his story is about the arrival of television and how this new wonder complicated and eventually changed the lives of people in a small fishing village. But through it unfolds a more important and more disturbing story: how easily Hindu-Muslim problems can erupt.

People in the fishing village lived in great harmony, never noticing who belonged to what religion. Then a Hindu girl runs away to chase the dreams brought to her mind by TV serials. Caught in underhand business dealings, a Muslim fish trader also disappears. Gossipers link the two and suddenly the mindsets of the villagers change. Now it is “them” and “us” all the way. Gulabi carries on as before, like Balraj Sahni’s Muslim in Garam Hava. But she is isolated, harassed and openly abducted.

Kasaravalli presents the story with a naturalness that makes the film extraordinarily powerful. We see how harmless gossiping can incite communal feelings, how quickly hatreds can develop. It is frightening. Ironically this movie has been released just when unprecedented communal intolerance is erupting in Mangalore and its surroundings. Unintentionally perhaps, “Gulabi Talkies” has become a timely warning. What a pity that timely warnings are never heeded by the bigoted.