The discovery of India by Indians

Aakar Patel
Amitabh Bachchan played many roles in which he was called the angry young man. But who was he angry with?

In Zanjeer (1972) it was gangsters and crime. In Deewar (1975 — Bachchan’s greatest year when he also acted in Chupke Chupke and in Sholay), it was against injustice. The true hero of Deewar is revealed to be not Amitabh, who dies a wealthy but lonely criminal, but his brother Shashi Kapoor, the police officer, who has no money but wins his mother’s approval.

But in Trishul (1978), Bachchan smoulders at his father Sanjeev Kumar who left him a bastard. And in the process of building wealth to get even, Bachchan upchucks morality.

From now on, his best roles were predominantly dark, beginning with Kala Paththar (1979) and going through Laawaris and Silsila (both 1981), Shakti (1982), Sharaabi (1984) to Agnipath (1990).

Bachchan was angry with discovering what was around him, and with his inability to solve it through due process.

The discovery of India by Indians is also the story of Bollywood.

In the 1950s, politicians were not villains in movies. As late as 1964, the year Nehru died after his China humiliation, India made movies in which politicians were noble (Dilip Kumar’s Leader).

A half-century of nationalism under Vivekanand (died 1902) and Gandhi had produced a nation that thought of itself romantically; that it could be led to greatness.

Indians began to discover their history only in the British period.

Before James Prinsep (died 1840) deciphered the Brahmi script, Indians did not know of their greatest ever ruler, Ashok (died 232 BC).

Indians were convinced that they were a great unified civilisation being held back by the colonial empire, and before that by the Muslim rulers of the second millennium.

After Independence, India’s problem was thought to be external: deviant behaviour, which could be punished and controlled by the upright leader. In his famous speech of August 11, 1947, Jinnah identified his three big worries: black market, nepotism and jobbery.

Would he take the same view today? In his ‘Tryst with destiny’ speech four days later, Nehru identified poverty, ignorance, disease and inequality.

From the 70s, as Indians became educated they began to encounter the nature of their country which they had been brought up thinking of romantically.

Between 1951 and 1981 India’s literacy doubled from 27 per cent to 56 per cent. By 1971, urban literacy was 70 Per cent.

New magazines were published from cities, including two that have had a significant role in crafting the middle-class mindset: ‘India Today’, from Delhi in 1975, and ‘Sunday’, from Calcutta in 1976. At their peak they sold over a half-million (India Today) and 300,000 (Sunday) copies an issue.

These magazines left the cities to do journalism in the hinterland, and they brought liberalism into middle-class homes, where neo- literates were primed to receive it through English education.

The brutality of the state and the cruelty in the village became stories for the first time in India. But this happened only through the anecdote: the blinding of criminals in Bihar by the police, the story of the dacoit Phoolan Devi, the sale of a woman into slavery, the lynching of a man for his caste.

These stories were seen as episodes, even though they poured out wherever the journalist probed.

The underlying nature of India was revealed to neither journalist nor reader. Like Amitabh Bachchan in the same period, the journalist was angry with his discovery, and so was his reader.

Indira Gandhi tapped into this anger with the enforcement of governance during the 1975-77 Emergency, when she suspended civil rights but disciplined the state.

Indians think Indira’s authoritarianism was rejected through the 1977 vote, but that is untrue. Indira’s defeat actually came about after her opponents, from the Socialists to the BJP’s predecessor, unified their identity vote under one party. The only other time they did this, in 1989 against Rajiv Gandhi, they won as well.

Rajiv Gandhi’s election in 1984 was still a period of optimism: it was believed that ‘modern Indians’ could kick backward India into shape.

The vile politician preventing this from happening was a Bollywood fixture.

Indian politicians have to be relentlessly hardworking to keep their place, but we think of them only in terms of corruption, which actually all Indians share through our Hobbesian instinct.

The weariness on Rajiv Gandhi’s handsome face showed his defeat as the enormity of India’s problem revealed itself to him over his five-year tenure.

His death in 1991 represented the end of the Indian middle-class’s political optimism.

Till this period, they thought India’s problems were external and ‘soluble’ through the clean and modern politician. That the problem was cultural and inherent was not understood.

This was the period when journalists like Sunday’s M J Akbar and Arun Shourie joined politics, and so did Amitabh Bachchan, Rajiv’s friend, representing Allahabad in parliament.

The end of Rajiv Gandhi and the rise of the peasants under the Yadavs of UP and Bihar sent the middle classes into retreat after their defeat on the anti-reservation issue of 1990-91. Implemented under VP Singh, this brought India’s peasant castes into power through mobilisation and ended the upper castes’ monopoly.

How were the movies affected by this?

In the 1990s, Bollywood split. One part, servicing rural India, stayed with the old themes of honour, crime, corruption and nationalism. The other, for cities, retreated from society and began to do movies on the individual and the family, putting forward its new heroes, the Khans: Shah Rukh, Aamir and Salman.

This is the Bollywood that survives.

The big movies of Shah Rukh Khan — Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaenge (1995), Dil To Pagal Hai (1997), Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Ghum (2001), Kal Ho Na Ho (2003) — are about economic optimism. There is no anger, and there is no looking outwards. But why?

In this period, the economy freed by Manmohan Singh helped the middle-class Indian disengage from both politics and the state.

The media also softened. The English newspaper moved away from politics, and has stayed away.

Pakistanis will be amazed at how apolitical and entertainment-oriented India’s English newspapers, magazines and news channels are. The values that are promoted in India’s mainstream media are not religious or cultural and for the most part they are not nationalist. They are based on consumption.

The journey of urban Indians through discovery, rage, fight, defeat, retreat and now distance is complete. But this distance, which brings selfishness, has not necessarily been entirely bad.

The maturity of India’s political reaction to the Bombay attacks, despite the hysteria in its Hindi media, is a reflection of a growing group of middle-class Indians made realist through economic progress.

An attack this brazen two decades ago would have led to military adventure. In that sense, India now has a large pool of people whom the state can fall back on to take unpopular decisions that are in its interest.

The writer is a former newspaper editor who lives in Bombay. Email: aakar.

Source: The News, 11th January, 2009


Leave a Reply