The republic and the parade of RRRs
Covid-19 may have receded, but that verb’s nominalised form—recession—stares at the world. But none of that is stopping us from going all Naatu Naatu with NTR Jr and Ram Charan.
Published: 29th January 2023 02:46 AM | Last Updated: 29th January 2023 09:29 AM | A+A A-
In the otherwise bleak and scattered field of vision that surrounds us, it’s films that are bringing some cheer and a measure of focus. Else, neither the economy nor the world seems to have any particular order as 2023 foglights its way through its first month. Conflict still hangs like a dark cloud, and the real climate may displace even that for sheer drama—if the year dawned with the news of Joshimath sinking, El Nino might disrupt our monsoon with bizarre rain-drought patterns and put extra frostbite into a gas-deficient European winter thereafter. Campuses are again spiralling into crisis and chaos. Covid-19 may have receded, but that verb’s nominalised form—recession—stares at the world. But none of that is stopping us from going all Naatu Naatu with NTR Jr and Ram Charan.
Never mind where your tastes lie, the theme surpasses the actual song. Director S S Rajamouli put his finger on it, sounding a bit miffed as he shared with Hollywood Reporter his disappointment at RRR not being the official Indian entry to the Oscars. Yes, it was sidelined by the Film Federation of India, which chose to send a little-known Gujarati film called Chello Show (ominously, The Last Film Show)—“colonised” that we are, nothing seems to stop us from chasing the prestige of an Academy Award! Fulfilment may yet await RRR after a rare Oscar nomination—everyone’s waiting for the final award show on March 13.
Meanwhile, we are not sitting idle. In new India, it’s not just that films save us from drudgery. We have to save films from boycott calls. And then they inevitably bring about the opposite effect as Indians show their true besharam rang (shameless colours) by queueing up at the box office and logging on to ticket-booking apps. It’s all Jhoome Jo Pathaan everywhere—no Oscar awaits it, but isn’t public approbation a better reward? The occasional video of vandalism notwithstanding, shows are running from 6 in the morning to beyond midnight. Never before has Taran Adarsh’s trade talk on how quickly a Bollywood blockbuster has made its hundreds of crores created so much interest among the chattering classes. There’s palpable relief on one front—Bollywood is not dead yet! The masala is back, and so is the mojo! Even Kangana Ranaut’s usual black tongue got a coating of honey and sugar.
Like our political ones, our filmi blockbusters don’t pretend to be high art. And like our politics, it can defy logic with pretty much the same elements—gravity-defying stunts, strutting six packs, high-octane action, blood-brawn-’n-gore, and song and dance about nothing. Whether the sepia tones of history or the noir shades of espionage, everything is spiced up, dragged out of context, cast in juvenile tones, and fictionalised beyond recognition. Those who claim films are a reflection of society must frequently be scratching their heads. Where exactly to draw parallels?
Well, if you step back to see the meta-patterns, there is indeed an umbilical tie between the two. The uber-success of a Telugu film like RRR—along with those of its monster-sized predecessors and the OTT success of other ‘South cinema’—is a quiet cultural reflection of a surge of regional political identity. As Rajamouli has been at pains to point out in the US, Bollywood is not ‘Indian cinema’ or its sole representative. The more we are boxed into a top-down narrative of ‘One Nation, One Aadhaar, One Tax’ and other assorted singularities, regional and sub-regional identities reassert themselves as a counter-narrative. The more we rewrite history in fictionalised monochromes, newer cultural artefacts appear that restore the rainbow and bring the sargam back to its seven-noted wholeness.
One reason why Bollywood is happy to create a splash for a change is because it has lost territory. Its status is curiously akin to that of a Partition refugee, given expression in Sahir’s revealing lines for Raj Kapoor, “Rahne ko ghar nahin hai / saara jahaan hamara” (I’ve no home, the whole world is mine). Or, as a Sindhi friend in Kolkata once said, “We’re the only people in the country without a state.” It’s a gap money cannot fill.
The current hysteria around Pathan notwithstanding, the question is: “Will there be a next one?” Will Bollywood endure beyond the ageing Khans. Can any future Hindi filmstar command such a pan-India hold that people come out in every province to fight a stifling boycott culture? When a Hindu identity—that is, a religious identity—usurps the national identity, can superstar fan clubs remain above community and provincial allegiances? Can there be a Mammooty for all of India? Looking into the future of Indian politics, we might as well ask the same question.
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Youth in distant Tripura may be bursting crackers for Pathaan’s success, but come February 16, they will be plunged into another fight—one to save regional identity and tribal rights. The BJP, defending champion in an unusual context, will be trying, as usual, to unify the Hindu vote. CPI(M) veteran Manik Sarkar, once one of India’s longest-serving CMs, is bowing out of electoral politics. The Congress is allied with the Left. No national narrative disturbs the local dynamics. Nagaland and Meghalaya, voting for February 27, too, are fraught with regional assertions and bitter territorial fights.
In the next big election—Karnataka—the most pronounced contest is again one of identity: between the regional and the religious. This is despite two national parties being pitted against each other. Similarly, in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chattisgarh, which vote later in 2023, national themes will be tossed around merely for effect—it’s localisms that will be the determining element.
Make no mistake, by the time the 2024 parliamentary elections are upon us, nationalism will once more be invoked strongly, mostly through outsourced narratives of military valour. But micro-management of caste and generalised innuendo about creed is what the ground will witness. And yes, very strong regional powerhouses are the alternative, in the east and south in particular. The Bahubalis of cinema have political counterparts. The Indian identity, if there’s any, is anyway locked up in the passport and scattered across biometric devices. No one notices this dispersal of identity because middle-class India—which is, at the end of the day, the influencer—finds its ‘national’ appetites regularly sated via the scoldings foreign minister S Jaishankar doles out to world powers. But in politics, as in cinema, always read between the lines.