Seductions of the Neoliberal Nation
29 September 2013
Bollywood films present unexpected interpretations of the 2002 Gujarat violence
The 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat was an essential marker of the ideology of Hindu supremacist Indian nationalism – celebratory for some, devastating for others. Now it serves additionally as a marker of the way the triumphantly neoliberal Indian state governs. A key protagonist of this new script for the Indian nation-state is Narendra Modi, as well as several other less flamboyant leaders in rival political parties. There is much in Modi that has turned him into an enigma of sorts: his continuing electoral successes since 2002, marred only by the BJP losing the general elections in 2004; his sophisticated packaging of Gujarat as India’s most prosperous state; his hiring of superstar Amitabh Bachchan to promote Gujarat’s tourism industry; his deification by super-rich industrialists such as the Ambani brothers; his rising popularity as a prime ministerial candidate; his embrace of communal politics; his regular appearances at universities, conclaves and summits to wax eloquent on his vision of economic growth; his habit of courting controversy with aplomb; and his detractors’ efforts to keep alive the memories of the 2002 atrocity and his culpability in it.
Bollywood films – perhaps more so than the mainstream news media – can offer a complicated and layered archive for understanding how collective secular middle-class memory works in neoliberal India.
Darshan Desai, who reported for a number of prominent English-language newspapers at the time of the Gujarat violence, noted in 2004 that Modi’s strategy was simple: to remain in the news. Modi has adorned magazine covers, featured in articles, and, just as his prime ministerial ambitions reached an all-time high, has had two critical biographies on him published recently in English. Even those who dislike him can’t help talking about him: this year, Firstpost.com carried an insensitive April Fool’s joke saying Modi had apologised for the 2002 pogrom. All of this has served to prevent the urban middle classes forgetting that something happened in 2002. So, it is disingenuous to argue or fear (like many of us do) that Gujarat 2002 has faded from middle-class imagination in India, given that not a day passes without news and analyses on Gujarat’s model of economic development, the perceived Modi vs. Gandhi binary, and Bollywood films making note of the pogrom. But most of what we remember is a blur, wrapped up in the vague temporal expression ‘Gujarat 2002’, sometimes (and incorrectly) referred to as the ‘post-Godhra riots’.
Bollywood films – perhaps more so than the mainstream news media – can offer a complicated and layered archive for understanding how collective secular middle-class memory works in neoliberal India. What we should be concerned about is not whether Modi’s sophisticated PR tactics are making us forget the pogrom, but how the technology of law and the spectacle of neoliberal capital work together to keep the fictive idea of the Indian nation intact: a nation which is secular in appearance, neoliberal in conduct, and Hindu at its core. The films – particularly those discussed here – contribute to an understanding of such a construction of the nation even as they bear surrogate witness, in their different narrative styles, to an event of mass atrocity. Without a challenge to this ‘fictive community’ of the nation, our memories will continue to be manipulated by nationalist neoliberalism, even if Modi or other culpable individuals are legally convicted.
News media and memory
During the initial days of the pogrom in 2002, images on satellite television news were able to shock many of us. Never before in India had communal violence been turned into a spectacle for middle-class drawing-room consumption. Privatised 24/7 news media were covering the violence and enjoying their fledgling liberated status without regulation after several years of state control. The images of brutality were a crude interruption to the crass modernity of Saas Bahu serials, gyrating booties on MTV Grind, or slick automobile advertisements. We were pulled in by how live the action was, the passionate histrionics of the reporters (trying hard to emulate the tactics of US media post-9/11), the images of death and destruction, and the interviews with maimed and displaced survivors. The spectacle of 24/7 news and its frenetic broadcast of mass atrocity ended up numbing us, and we didn’t consider the politics of its transmission. There was a surfeit of instantaneous images on screen, but their impact was limited to momentary shock. In 2013, the pace and penetration of media technologies have increased manifold as a result of
blogs and social media networks. The potential for news to go viral on Twitter or Facebook adds more to the instantaneity of 24/7 news media.
Despite ample evidence available in the public domain – independent fact-finding reports, survivor testimonies, damning revelations by public servants, state-instituted inquiry commissions, media investigations and statements by the Supreme Court – the majority’s faith in Modi’s economic vision built on the blood of the annihilated remains unshaken. Rakesh Sharma’s important and disturbing 2003 documentary Final Solution, which has the potential to shake elite and middle-class confidence in Modi, will never be watched on television or released in theatres, as even after the censor lifted its ban on it in 2004, the film has been limited to left circles within universities, niche film festivals, progressive NGOs and peace movements. Why has none of the information available in the public domain managed to impact the majority? Not just card-carrying Hindu right-wingers, but others too, including a large population of Indian youth and diaspora. Have they been fooled by Modi’s whitewashing of the events of 2002 with his rhetoric on economic growth? Have the images of death and gore lost all power to stir our conscience? Or has the proliferation of these images of agony just not affectively touched the so-called buoyant consumerist mood of the nation?
Haunting photographs like that of Qutubuddin Ansari begging for mercy from a Hindutva mob, and disturbing images on television and in more mainstream documentary films, have had three kinds of effects on the Hindu elite and middle-class ‘consumer-spectators’: they were either happy about what happened to Muslims (because they deserved it); they were repulsed by them (too much gore is not good for our happy lives); or it generated a ‘politics of pity’. Pity is the closest that the fortunate elite and middle classes have come to expressing some sentiment of attachment to the victim-survivors. This sentiment does not include feelings of injustice done to Muslims. Rather, it has exacerbated difference and entrenched a deeper belief in the need for Muslim assimilation into majority ways of living and behaving.
New Bollywood cinema
The violence of 2002 is often referred to as a ‘pogrom’, in part because of the way the events were driven by images of the enemy Muslim ‘other’, circulated well before actual violence started. Similarly, images of ‘vibrant Gujarat’ have been used to discipline our memories of 2002, not to make us forget it, but to remember and even emulate it. Post-liberalisation Hindi films – or what I call New Bollywood cinema – seem to have captured these phenomena better than most of the sophisticated analyses by experts. Feature films like Parzania (directed by Rahul Dholakia, 2007), Firaaq (directed by Nandita Das, 2008) or most recently Kai Po Che! (hereafter KPC, directed by Abhishek Kapoor, 2013) have been richer archives of popular sentiments than journalistic or documentary accounts, both in terms of their content and the response they have generated. While photographic or documentary images of 2002 have focussed on phantasmagoric violence, these films have woven aesthetic representations of violence with narratives of the everyday and ordinary that the multiplex audience can connect with at the level of the quotidian and not the exceptional. The use of music and songs adds a texture to the filmic narrative that draws the viewer into willingly suspending disbelief.
While photographic or documentary images of 2002 have focussed on phantasmagoric violence, these films have woven aesthetic representations of violence with narratives of the everyday and ordinary.
New Bollywood cinema achieves a balance between challenging parts of the status quo but rarely disturbing the neatness of meta-structures of socio-political organisation and oppression, most importantly the nation, the market and the family. It is this carefully designed formula that makes new Bollywood cinema seductive even for the ‘intelligent’ viewer. This is similar to the way in which, for Benedict Anderson, print-capitalism facilitated the understanding of the nation as an “imagined community”. It is New Bollywood cinema that facilitates the understanding of the nation in neoliberal India as a fictive community. Every film that keeps this fiction alive, even those that talk about fractures and fragments within it, does well at the box office. The three feature films discussed here hold up various forms and imaginations of this fictive community of the neoliberal and Hindu nation-state which is at the heart of the politics of remembering Gujarat 2002. While the pogrom is central to Parzania and Firaaq’s narratives, in KPC it is a sub-plot, but nevertheless an important one that contributes to the story’s cathartic closure.
Parzania opens claiming it is “inspired by a true story”, and Firaaq saying that it is “a work of fiction… based on a thousand true stories”. Both acknowledge their fictional status but lay claim to authenticity, maybe to establish some legitimacy for their content and gain respectability as parallel/middle cinema (those films that engage in social commentary but through accessible narratives). KPC, based on Chetan Bhagat’s best-selling novel The 3 Mistakes of My Life, offers no such disclaimers and has posited itself as mainstream Hindi cinema. Despite being fictional reconstructions of ‘real’ events, all three films are historically accurate in many details and offer clear representations of police participation in fomenting the pogrom. Parzania and Firaaq are unambiguous about the fact that this was a pre-planned act of atrocity, made possible by state complicity. All three films have well-crafted stories with strong screenplays, are cinematically appealing, and showcase commendable performances by both established and new actors. Parzania and Firaaq did well mostly in festival circuits and won critical acclaim and awards, and KPC achieved commercial success in metropolitan centres. Parzania faced trouble opening in Gujarat when theatre owners feared a Hindu right-wing backlash. The commercial release dates for all three films were planned around the anniversary of the fateful date in February 2002, timed to memorialise Godhra and the pogrom. That feature films have been made on the pogrom and its consequences says something about the event’s marketability.
Parzania is the story of the Pithawalas, a happy Parsi family in Ahmedabad, and the tragedy they confront at the time of the pogrom. Parzan, the ten-year-old son of Cyrus and Shernaz, disappears while escaping a murderous mob of Hindu militants with his mother and sister. The film follows Cyrus and Shernaz as they frantically search for their son. While the film shows that the violence unfolds after the Godhra train incident, it does not hold this up as the precipitating event. From the beginning of the film Hindu right-wingers are shown to have been involved in planning the pogrom. It is the only film that characterises the violence as ‘genocide’, and even compares the Parishad (the Hindu militant political party in the film) to the Ku Klux Klan of the United States. The film, overall, does not stereotype Muslims. The housing complex in which the Pithawalas live is mixed-class and multi-religious. Yet, the majority-minority dynamics between Parsis and Hindus (and, by extension, Muslims) in the larger context of national identity is made clear.
The story of Parzania unfolds through the eyes of Alan, an American living in Ahmedabad, researching Gandhi and coming to terms with his own complicated Christian past while drinking country liquor incessantly in dry Gujarat. The filmmakers seem to have wanted to make the events intelligible to an urban, English-speaking and even international audience, hence the use of a foreign, ostensibly objective, narrator. When the Pithawalas start living in the refugee camp after the pogrom, it is Alan who finds them and invites them to stay in his house.
With a measured mix of sentiment, compassion and fact, the film offers a strong critique of Hindu militancy and state complicity. Though not Muslim, the Pithawalas were affected by the mindlessness of the violence, and this is portrayed sensitively. The film attempts to make sense of the violence through the symbol of Gandhi, the so-called ‘father of the nation’. Here, the film succumbs to the seduction of the idea of nation. Instead of offering a critique of nationalism as the ideology of the Hindu Rashtra, which was at the root of the pogrom and the continuing attempts to justify it, the film instead posits militant Hindu nationalism in opposition to Gandhi’s soft-Hindu secularist nationalism, thus drawing a fragile distinction between good nationalism and bad, and in effect letting the violence of the idea of the nation escape scrutiny. For the middle-class, liberal, secular audience this is the easiest route to redemption: condemn the violence, but love the nation, without linking the two.
Director Dholakia has said that he drew inspiration from the real life disappearance of ten-year-old Azhar Mody during the Gulbarg Society massacre in Ahmedabad on 28 February 2002. Parzania ends with a message asking people to write in if they find information on Azhar. The message has an accompanying photograph showing Azhar holding up the Indian flag. This suggests that the health of the nation is at stake in this violence, and that finding Azhar is a small step that the viewer can take to stop the disintegration of Gandhi’s ideal of the fictive unified nation.
Modi’s decision to put the death penalty on hold pending legal opinion from the advocate general will make the secular middle classes deify him further, for this ostensibly attests to his belief in due process.
Firaaq, the directorial debut of Nandita Das, is an unsettling narrative of fractures in the aftermath of the pogrom. It makes apparent that the spaces for redemption are continuously being constricted in an atmosphere of fear and hate. This fracture is made powerfully apparent in the opening scene of the film, which shows truckloads of dead bodies arriving at a mass grave. Two traumatised Muslim men are burying the bodies when the younger man discovers the dead body of a Hindu woman and wonders what to do with her. Will he bury a Hindu corpse? At that moment the older man erupts in rage and tries to hack the body to pieces. The younger man stops him with a desperate question: “How will you kill the dead?” The older man breaks down in tears, and the opening credits begin.
Precarious intersections between trauma, rage and reason animate the rest of the film, which narrates five separate stories of people navigating their lives and losses a month after the pogrom in Ahmedabad. A working-class Muslim couple (Hanif and Munira) with a newborn baby who have come back from hiding to find their home burnt to rubble; an upper-class, inter-religious couple (Sameer Sheikh and Anuradha Desai) who are planning to leave for Delhi after the Muslim husband’s store gets looted despite his business partner being a Hindu; a Hindu housewife (Aarti) who finds refuge from her abusive, Muslim-hating husband in her kitchen, where she daily burns her arms with hot oil to repent for not saving a Muslim woman who cried for help running from Hindu mobs; an ageing Muslim classical singer (Khan Saheb) who wonders what draws people to commit atrocities and, on finding that an ancient shrine of the Urdu poet Wali Mohammed Wali was destroyed and paved over with tar, laments that even music doesn’t have the power to respond to this murderous madness, and a small orphaned Muslim boy (Mohsin) who walks the city searching for his father, who is already dead. Mohsin meets Aarti, who brings him home and hides him in the kitchen, but he runs away when Aarti’s husband beats her up. Characters in all the stories share fragile connections that are marked by either antagonism or humanism, or both.
In Firaaq, the stories and the tragicomic turns the characters take open up spaces of alternative imaginings of justice, reconciliation and resistance that don’t necessarily align with the standard script of juridical rationality such as state-organised inquiries, investigations and prosecution. Stories of everyday spaces of living in the wake of atrocity make Firaaq powerful. The power of Firaaq lies in its displacement of the nation-state; evicting its violent presence from the everyday lives of survivors; not letting it hijack normal experiences and interactions. Firaaq does not attempt to keep the fictive nation fully intact. It brings into disturbing relief the injuries to human minds and bodies, and to the body politic. Several sequences in the film’s narrative have television news reports running in the background, a constant reminder of the ‘real’ breakdown of the nation. Firaaq’s emotive power, however, exposes it to co-option by liberal and secular discourses of compassion, sentimentalising suffering. We might condemn the rabid characters in the film, but then say “see, people have the power to move on and that’s the human spirit we should celebrate”. The displacement of the nation-state from the film’s narrative erases the need to establish accountability, for both the state’s complicity and the audience’s condoning of it. This allows the audience to cry, but not ask political questions about justice.
Aspiration, law, and neoliberalism
Kai Po Che! was released eleven years after the pogrom, and as such is being watched not only by those who remember the live news feeds, but also those who were too young to understand the violence in 2002. For the young people in the film’s audience who are being trained as ideal ‘consumer-citizens’, or who are on the verge of joining a neoliberal workforce, KPC holds up an apt reflection of their aspirations, as well as a compelling story of how practising neoliberal nationalism is the antidote against adversity. The pogrom is not central to the film’s story, yet it is what the film has been noticed for. KPC is the story of friendship between three young middle-class Hindu men – Ishaan, Omi and Govind – from Ahmedabad’s old city area. They are regular middle-class boys, living average lives, and thinking of very ordinary ways of making their lives economically productive. The familiarity of it all is possibly what connects KPC to its middle-class viewers, and what has made it a commercial and critical success. The regularity of the characters, their beliefs and their responses to the destruction that surrounds them makes KPC a troubling reflection of the way we remember Gujarat 2002.
Ishaan loves cricket and is a good player, but he has been unsuccessful in making it professionally. He’s hot-headed and violently over-protective of his sister Vidya. His mother is dead, and his father is upset with him for not doing much with his life, apart from obsessively watching cricket on TV. Omi’s father is the chief priest at the local temple. His maternal uncle Bittu, leader of a Hindu right-wing party, is constantly pestering him to join politics. Govind is the most rational of the three. He offers maths tuition to school children, and has a plan to open a sports academy with his friends. Govind requests some start-up investment from Ishaan’s father, but due to Ishaan’s belligerent behaviour his father tears up the cheque he promised. Omi then approaches his uncle Bittu who provides them with a space adjoining the local temple. The three young men work elsewhere to earn money for their business, and their life seems to be in order. They are neoliberalism’s ideal subjects: they believe in and practice private enterprise, keep nationalist pride alive through their love of cricket, and are apolitical. There comes a natural leap in their aspiration to accumulate: they want to move out of the small store in their locality to a big one in a mall, in a city with rapidly developing real estate. This move will require a huge amount of money, and uncle Bittu again agrees to give them a loan, after expressing some reservations about the Muslim broker they were dealing with. They acquire the property.
The happy narrative of entrepreneurial success meets with two blows, snowballing into a rift between the three friends, and then an irreversible tragedy. First is the 2001 Bhuj earthquake. Ishaan had become very close to Ali, a cricket prodigy from a working-class Muslim family who he has been training. After the earthquake, he brings a large group of displaced Muslims from Ali’s community to the relief camp for Hindus run by Bittu’s political party. This indicates the discrimination Muslims faced in accessing relief after the earthquake. Omi and other party members say they cannot provide for the Muslims because they are not ‘our people.’ The second crisis is the 2002 pogrom. Omi’s parents make a trip to Ayodhya, and they return on the train that is burnt at Godhra. The film identifies this incident as the reason for attacks on Muslims, restating the factually inaccurate action-reaction story. Violence breaks out and Ishaan goes to help Ali’s family, also calling for Govind’s assistance. In the tense circumstances, Ishaan discovers that Govind is having a relationship with his sister, Vidya, and beats him up. Ishaan’s secular benevolence towards Ali and his patriarchal attitude towards his sister are two sides of the same coin, and reflective of an insidious middle-class, neoliberal mindset. Further violence ensues between Hindus and Muslims, and a bullet fired by Omi, intended for Ali’s father, hits Ishaan instead and kills him.
Omi goes to prison for killing his friend. He is released from prison several years later, a broken man. Govind meets him on his release, and they drive to a cricket stadium, where Ali is making his international debut. Govind introduces Omi to his son, named Ishaan. Govind has married Vidya, the dead Ishaan’s sister, and is now a successful businessman. The young Ishaan hands Omi the Indian flag. The closing scene shows Ali hitting a cover drive boundary, the exact shot that Ishaan had trained him to perfect. The scene fades in and out with Ishaan’s smiling face, memorialising his sacrifice that made Ali who he is today.
Much has been written about KPC: that it is a watered down version of Bhagat’s novel because the filmmakers wanted to play it safe; that Bhagat, as the screenplay writer, is now cosying up to Modi; that it offers a reductionist version of the pogrom; that it lets Modi off the hook; that despite its drawbacks it offers a window of hope; that you cannot expect a mainstream film to do more. KPC is paradigmatic of how the law and capital – the two fraudulent markers of secular liberal democracies – work in unison to keep the fiction of ‘nation’ alive. Whenever the neatness of the idea and image of the nation meets complications, law comes in to serve the purpose of ordering the situation and making intelligible who or what gets labelled ‘lawless’. Capital comes in the form of (Hindu) culture, heritage, unity, virility, and in the avatar of neoliberalism, to do the work of reordering time, putting it on the progressive scales of modernity and developmentalism, and disciplining memories of trauma by replacing the wounded ‘old’ nation with the antiseptic ‘new’ one.
The stories that each of the films tell, if read in the chronological context of their release, says a lot about how as a nation India remembers the pogrom.
The law recognises Omi as lawless and thus in need of incarceration and reformation. In the eyes of the audience the legal machinery has played its role, and the faith in law is restored despite the thousands killed. The performance of juridical processes displaces concerns about state accountability. Legal culpability is privatised, and is singularly focused on Omi. Parzania, on the other hand, presents different operations of juridical rationality. A large part of the second half of the film is dedicated to the hearings of a human rights commission. Braving the presence of several Hindu right-wingers, Shernaz Pithawala speaks with conviction and demands that her son be returned to her, that she will wait forever if she has to. In no ambiguous words she says that the government was responsible for taking care of her son, and that the police had failed to provide protection. That she will wait forever is not only representative of her courage, but also her faith in the fiction of law and the nation, despite its failures.
Juridical rationality is in actual operation as well – Modi’s decision to seek the death penalty for Maya Kodnani, Babu Bajrangi and other convicted right-wing leaders might rile other Hindutva political parties, and it might also alert human rights activists to how this strategy will deflect attention from Modi’s own culpability. But it strengthens the capital punishment-approving, middle-class belief in the judiciary, and their faith in Modi’s commitment to governance, development, and also in the rule of law. The audience, however, is happy for Omi not to be sent to the gallows in the film, because his act was merely an accident. Interestingly, Modi’s decision to put the death penalty on hold pending legal opinion from the advocate general will make the secular middle classes deify him further, for this ostensibly attests to his belief in due process.
In KPC, neoliberalism decorates the nation with smooth roads, coffee shops, huge stadiums, entrepreneurial success and cricket. KPC does not work to erase memories of 2002. It gives us a glimpse into how neoliberal nationalism memorialises. It is Ishaan’s death that is mourned above all others, the Hindu who was killed by another Hindu, trying to help Muslims and keep secularism alive. Ali seems to have no reason to deal with any trauma. He has emerged unscathed. We don’t know where his family is, or what happened to them. We are happy about the secular credentials of the Indian cricket team, and that a talented Muslim now plays for India, despite living through the pogrom. We are happy that Govind is married, has a son, and because of his business sense is so successful. These are success stories worthy of celebration, we are told. It is only Omi’s trauma that matters. The aspirational figure of Govind’s child, handing Omi an Indian flag, soothes Omi’s soul. The innocent gesture of the child is the seductive cue for the audience to feel buoyant about the jubilant nation. Firaaq’s Mohsin and Parzania’s Parzan are also deployed with similar effect. The tragedy faced by the child is the most painful blow to the secular nation. And the popular consumption of hope is also extracted through the child. Neoliberal nationalism regularises any tragedy, and suggests that following the script of private enterprise and accumulation will ultimately make us immune to interruptions and make the nation unshakeable. The death and destruction is ordinary damage, and is only remembered as a marker of the nation’s glorious progress. All will be subsumed within the narrative of neoliberal nationalist developmentalism.
These three films help us think about India’s collective response to the pogrom of 2002, cinema being a repository of this response. Bollywood cinema is a rich archive of popular and national sentiments. The stories that each of the films tell, if read in the chronological context of their release, says a lot about how as a nation India remembers the pogrom. Parzania demands that the experience of victim-survivors be recorded in the quasi-legal archive; for Firaaq the archive of the quotidian is where negotiations with the past will happen, and KPC offers an alternative register of remembrance. Their reconstructions of the pogrom are disturbing and reassuring at the same time. The imagery of violence bothers us, but the Hindu-ness of the nation (which is passed off as secularism) is cause for comfort. Middle-class, liberal and secular engagement with the pogrom have also progressed along a similar trajectory. We talked about justice, then we talked some more about people’s resilience.
Modi’s ubiquitous media presence is not just because of his PR skills and popular, unrepentant fascism. It is also because India only wants to hear stories of entrepreneurial success, good roads, coffee shops, huge stadiums and cricket. These help us keep our faith in the fictive neoliberal nation, and in capital and law as the scaffolding that enables continuous mending of the fractured nation. In this way, the violence of Gujarat 2002 is not exceptional (a state of emergency was not declared while the killings continued), but part of the script through which law gives form to lives, relations and institutions. There is no way we can forget the events in Gujarat in 2002, but how do we want to remember them? Through singularly targeting Narendra Modi, which in effect deflects our complicity in this perverse neoliberal enterprise of memorialisation? Or can we face up to our everyday culpability in reproducing the Hindu-ness of the neoliberal nation?
Oishik Sircar is a lawyer and documentary filmmaker, and presently a Teaching Fellow and Doctoral Candidate at the Institute for International Law and the Humanities, Melbourne Law School. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.