Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Kai Po Che and the politics of appeasement and reconciliation

by Iram Ghufran

 Kai Po Che [2013] can be described as a wholesome cinematic experience. Directed by Abhishek Kapoor, based on the novel - 'The Three Mistakes of My Life' by Chetan Bhagat, the film is a tragic coming of age story with a silver lining.  Set in Ahmedabad during the years 2000-02, the film follows the lives of three friends - Ishaan, Govind and Omi and their desire to own a successful business and move out of a middle class rut. The film revolves around their trials and travails as they set up a sports goods business and a cricket coaching academy, and their encounter with the Muslim world through Ali, Ishaan's talented cricketing protégé. The film gradually builds to a climax set during the Gujarat genocide of Muslims during February -March 2002.
For plot, read-!#Plot

Kai Po Che is a very slick film, beautifully shot and edited. It has some wonderful performances by the lead actors, and some very touching moments. Some of the other elements that worked for me were that there are no meaningless rhetorical speeches on Hindu- Muslim bhai- chara, the film sends a very strong message for non- violence, it produces some very endearing and believable characters like Omi's father - a Hindu non-communal temple priest, Vidya, Ishaan's sister - a vivacious Gujarati girl who doesn't hesitate to make the first move with a man she likes, and then of course Ali- the quiet teenager with a talent for sports.

Despite all that’s going for it, I do find Kai Po Che a problematic film and my problem lies beyond story/ script/ narrative structure and even representational/ identity politics. In fact in some ways the film does rather well in its depiction of the minority (Muslim) community. The Muslims are clearly affiliated with the secular/ Gandhian political party, Muslims are not shown wielding weapons of any kind in the film - in fact the general helplessness of Ali's father when their house is attacked by a right wing Hindu mob is very moving. It is the Hindu's who are shown to make the first move - whether it is the pulling down of Ali's pajama in the playground by a bunch of bullies, or the general apathy and refusal of aid to Muslims after the earthquake. It was a relief to not see any visuals of meat shops, men and women constantly performing namaz, or lots of burqa wearing women. In fact one could even ignore the ever-present skull caps.

So, an acquaintance asked - What is your problem with this film? Her positioning that the film takes the 'issue' of the Gujarat genocide head on and tackles it so gently and firmly that we should be grateful that Kai Po Che was ever made, leaves me with bile in my throat. Perhaps the problem lies less with the film - but more with this reading of the film. Kai Po Che produces a white-washed version of the story of the Gujarat genocide of 2002 and I am shocked at how easily this acquaintance and some people are lauding this film for its liberal, secular politics. I will not be surprised if Kai Po Che is India's official entry to the Oscars. In the following paragraphs, I will not raise the question of Chetan Bhagat's affiliation with Narendra Modi, nor will I speculate why Parzania [2007] could not be released in Gujarat, while Kai Po Che was not only released, but parts of it were shot in Narendra Modi's village.

The problem with this film is that it makes the Gujarat pogrom of 2002 palatable to the audience. The genocide consumed in a fifteen minute climax, where in the end the empathy is not even with the 'victims'. In fact new 'victims' are produced - Ishaan, who sacrifices his life for Ali, Omi, who has already lost his parents, now inadvertently ends up killing his best friend and spends 10 years in jail, Govind who loses his friend and Vidya who loses her brother. What is Ali's loss? Does the film provide a reflective moment for that?

A key 'issue' with the film is that the violence perpetrated on the Muslims is directly linked to the train tragedy at Godhra station in which about 60 people died. The complexity of those 'links' and the subsequent inquiries into the Sabarmati Express fire are not something that the filmmaker even hints at. We all agree that the train fire at Godhra station was a very unfortunate episode, but we also know that the issue is much more complicated. I am sure that the filmmaking team had done thorough research into this, but they chose the State line. They choose expediency over honesty.
For a report in Tehelka -

Many people are too grateful that a ‘mainstream Hindi film has shown whatever small slice of what happened with a remarkable degree of honesty’. Perhaps mainstream was not ready to tackle the complexity of  the Godhra tragedy, or the Gujarat genocide. Just because it is mainstream, we cannot let our critical faculties be swayed.

In Kai Po Che, the violence against the Muslims is pitched as a spontaneous flare-up because allegedly the Muslims of Godhra torched the Sabarmati Express in which many innocent people died, including Omi's parents. The film depicts Omi's rage against the Muslims, his absolute belief that it was the Muslims who killed his parents, and hence the justification for attacking the Muslims in Ahmedabad.  The film condemns Omi's violence. Indeed it asks Omi to be a better person. But the easy cause - effect relation between Godhra and the Gujarat pogrom and the simplistic relationship between action and reaction that the film perpetuates is unacceptable to me. No right thinking person – the filmmakers, critics, audience (and I presume most of the audience of this film is right-thinking) will say that violence is a good thing, but in the film, the characters are seemingly forgiving of flare-ups, spontaneous outbursts of youth, and "mistakes" that take on the shape of mass killings, rapes, loot and destruction of property.

The film successfully orchestrates empathy with the three friends - All emotion is attributed to Ishaan, Govind and Omi. Does the film generate empathy with the real 'victims' of the Gujarat genocide? Or even a fictional Ali? Can we think about the 'victims' - the anonymous Muslims who served as props for the drama in Kai Po Che to be played out; and can we think about Ali, the good Muslim, the foot soldier of Indian secularism and democracy scoring winning runs under the able coaching and guidance of a good Hindu? And what happened to Ali's family?

We forget the brutality of this pre-planned violence; we even forget that it was pre-planned. The voter lists, school and college admission registers, municipality records of property ownership, the large cache of arms available to the mobs - no allusion to any of this in this film. The violence on the Muslims is not abhorrent any more. Ishaan's death is. The film has a very clear message. It has been 10 years… time to forgive, forget and move on. In fact, Narendra Modi himself has recently said that his "idea of secularism is "India First" and people will forgive "mistakes" of a government if it serves them well."  Yes, many people have short memories; many have forgiven Maken, Tytler and Co for 1984, is it now time for Gujarat?

I do understand that on board are important issues of forgiveness and reconciliation vis a vis the Gujarat violence. But whose forgiveness is being asked for? The film ends with a reconciliation among the Hindus. Vidya, Ishaan's ‘progressive’ sister married to the apolitical and successful businessman (Govind), forgives Omi (for his mistake in killing Ishaan). Ali hits a six in the last couple of minutes of the film. His father and mother can nowhere to be seen in the stadium - are they back in Juhapura or in a camp?

Whether the problem of Kai Po Che be attributed to political naivety of the creators of the film or to very suave management of the cinematic form, the problem remains. The history writing of Kai Po Che is unacceptable. Its secular pretensions are not without doubt. Redemption has to come with justice. To be appeased with a heart-moving tale of guilt and redemption without looking at the big picture is foolhardy to say the least.


  1. The picture you create is really two vast and too deep to comment on... I haven't watched the film and now I don't think I will. Just like the bile rises in your throat, I feel completely choked up when I think back to April 2002; watching the events unfold in complete helplessness. We did a play during that time, exploring the roots of communalism in India, years and years and years of political interference with people who, in essence, do know how to live together in peace... What can I say... there can be no atonement for people who choose to ignore that basically, in our hearts and in our very bloodstreams we are all human - if they don't know that already, where can atonement come from?

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