Thursday, March 14, 2013

No Time for Grieving: Or Why We Should Talk Some More About Kai Po Che

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by Debashree Mukherjee
Okay, so the popular consensus is that Kai Po Che is a good film. Everyone agrees that it’s well shot and edited, the relatively unknown heroes are excellent, and the narrative is taut and emotionally resonant. It is competent and follows all the right cues worthy of a buddy movie about growing up and testing loyalties. But the film is hardly an event. It has been seized upon as a significant cinematic landmark for its depiction of the Gujarat pogrom of 2002. It might be worth our while to get some perspective here.

Today I will look at some other questions about our collective liberal attitude to this film, and what it indicates about our memory of select incidents of mass violence in this country. The main question to ponder is whether there is something dangerous about a historically-contextualized cultural product that can be coopted by a range of political perspectives? Is there something objectionable about a film (and the emotions it generates) which is deliberately toothless in the face of power? Over the last few weeks we have witnessed a range of informed cultural commentators  protest that critics of the film are making much to-do about what is in fact the first “realistic” and engaging Bollywood depiction of the Gujarat massacre. This post rejects that opinion and appeals for responsible film criticism and an alert, active mode of spectatorship.

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I
What really happened in Gujarat in 2002? The propaganda narrative simplistically maintains that the burning of a train in Godhra, combined with a history of communal violence in Gujarat, led to a large-scale eruption of misplaced anger. We’ve seen that before in this subcontinent. Over and over. We are outraged each time it happens and then we shake our heads and say that the fury of the mob is irrational. But this view is a gross, unethical misrepresentation of the event. --> (See this article for an analysis of how KPC waters down the pogrom for easy assimilation. Also Paul Brass for a theoretical analysis of how the category “Hindu-Muslim riots” is produced.)

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Contradicting this propaganda are academics, NGOs, lawyers, and journalists who have published studies that prove that the Gujarat “riots” were systematic, large-scale, aided by government lists and electoral rolls and university attendance charts. The police stood by and watched. Ministers were gheraoed and murdered inside their homes in broad daylight. Women were brutally raped and tortured in ways that boggle the mind. Such an event could not take place without the sanction of the state. The Chief Minister at the time, a man who clearly has blood on his hands, and mud on his face, is preparing to become Prime Minister of this righteous republic. He has admitted recently that some “mistakes” were made in the past but the reasonable citizens of this nation will surely forgive him. That so many of us have also apparently forgiven and forgotten is scary to me. 

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Kai Po Che ably addresses the propaganda narrative of the genocide. Farhana Ibrahim points out that the earthquake section reveals a gradual build-up of motivated communal tension. And yet, this does nothing except set the stage for the abrupt "flare-up" that is to follow. The real character of the violence, that it was a state-sponsored systematic purging of a community, is none of the film’s concern. Apart from some meager references to newly-minted swords and a call to the police that doesn’t go through, KPC simply doesn’t want to deal with the facts. You will say, but yaar, it is a fiction film not a documentary. At least the director has shown the communal politics in an honest way. What more can you expect of a mainstream movie? I will say, yes, you are partially right. It’s done a decent job but it is not honest and there are insidious messages and meta-commentaries that ultimately do more harm than good. There is a gaping wound bang in the centre of the plot. What happened in that Sabarmati train coach? Two state-appointed fact-finding commissions were instituted (Nanavati-Mehta Commission, 2002; U. C. Bannerjee Committee, 2004) to get to the root of the matter. Both, ironically, had contradictory findings. The matter is still under dispute. KPC, however, uses a remarkable sleight of hand to endorse the Muslim-conspiracy version of the incident. We see the fundamentalist Mamaji say that “the Hindus” will not tolerate such an atrocity, meaning that the train was torched by Muslim extremists. Next, Omi’s friends come to take him home, sensing that matters are going to get out of hand. He turns to them and says, “You mother hasn’t died, has she?” and the friends are silenced. It is the friends’ silence, dramatically astute though it may be, that rankles. That is the terrible silence at the heart of the film, a refusal to complicate the causality narrative. The film just lets the question slide. This is what they call the moment of “prestige” in a magician’s vocabulary. Causality has been established and you didn’t even see it. Magic.

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There is another magic trick that we in India are fond of. It revolves around converting an outrageous crime into a tragedy. We have short-term memory loss when it comes to perpetrators and state actors. Besides, we have zero memory of anger or a need for justice. KPC delivers this exact-same discourse of mourning and anguish. A recent review by Trisha Gupta articulates this admiringly, If Kai Po Che's segregated universe has a message for us, it is not to applaud the fractured society it mirrors. It is to force us to see what exists – and grieve for how it came to be.” That’s cute. A nation that grieves together stays together. Let’s try two more pithy aphorisms and see if they make sense: A tragedy heals itself with time. An outrage needs redressal.

Gupta also suggests another argument in favor of KPC:It also seems clear to me that this film is more effective in reaching out to its audience—and potentially changing people's minds—than an imagined filmic naming and shaming of Modi could ever be.” Is there something patronizing about this position? Every person who iterates this view is subtly distancing herself from KPC’s ideal “audience”. Because, of course, we don’t need any mind-changing. We refer to a nebulous great Indian middle-class - young bankers, older housewives, middle-aged engineers - which will vote for Narendra Modi in the coming elections. But are these constituencies really so mindless? All the film says is that rash acts of violence are bad; stick with your friends; don’t be swayed by evil politicians. Who wouldn’t agree with that? On the other hand, if the film convinced you that there are minoritized sections in our country that have been historically oppressed and we, the protagonists, reap the benefits of this oppression; or if the film changed your mind about Modi, showed you that sometimes “development” comes at a price that we might not want to pay, then we’d have something to celebrate. But commercial cinema rarely works like that, so please, hold your applause. Kai Po Che is, as a dear comrade put it, a children’s film on Gujarat. If adults cheer it on, it’s time to stop and wonder.

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II
Remember how we were all outraged when that Farhan Akhtar advertisement came out? The one that exhorted all men to “be men” and protect women from sexual harassment? Remember how you forwarded Kavita Krishnan’s link to your friends on facebook and said wow, this girl has nailed it? What was the problem with that advert? It’s heart was in the right place, it was well-intentioned, in a world full of misogynists it was telling men to be sensitive to women. Nevertheless, we were offended because we are sophisticated feminists and we know that such an exhortation belongs firmly within the realm of patriarchy, a sexist approach that hinges on male power and female lack of agency. Then why do we not react with equal nuance when something similar but more blatant is happening in KPC? (For a discussion of KPC’s representation of Muslim victims and Hindu heroes see this

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In the same Kafila post, Ibrahim responds to criticism that KPC leaves out many important facets of the Gujarat violence by asking: “are the[se] the only ways in which we can memorialize the events of 2002 and after?” No, these are not. We have precedents like Final Solution, Firaq, and Parzania. So let there be a Kai Po Che too. And may there be other, braver, more honest films in the future. We can only start to collectively address a recent trauma through a multiplicity of narratives. Coming back to the question of cinematic memorialization, what are some precedents for the fictional treatment of traumatic historical events? We’re familiar with the commercially viable Hollywood holocaust genre, an aesthetically settled form that directly confronted the post-WW2 ‘radical unrepresentability thesis’ of the Jewish holocaust. The crucial point is that the holocaust genre and its cathartic melodrama had some advantages that we don’t have for the representation of our own subcontinental genocides. For one, our histories are grossly unsettled. There has been no naming of perpetrators or extended trials. We don’t pass bills that recommend punishment for “command responsibility”. Our mass murderers sit in Parliament and are dispersed across every political party. Two, there are many “facts” and representational tactics in the holocaust genre that were sacred in its first decades. The genre didn’t come into its own till the 1960s, a good two decades after the large-scale Nazi persecution of Jews. It took an even longer time for Hollywood to attempt a good German protagonist. And even as recently as 2010, there was outrage at Quentin Tarantino’s fabulist historiography in Inglorious Basterds, a vengeful fairytale that still maintains the appropriate distance between the good guys and the bad guys. In India, where there has been scant cinematic examination of even the Partition, we somehow feel grateful for any Bollywood crumbs that are thrown our way.

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Snigdha Poonam has quoted Chetan Bhagat as saying “The film depicts the riots in full detail; it just doesn’t take sides. I am still the only writer who has engaged with Gujarat riots.” He also said in an interview with the Indian Express, “Nobody can deny what has happened in Gujarat. Why and how has it happened that really is an opinion. And that the film doesn’t have.” This statement holds the key to my reading of the film and the weakly complicit responses to it. For example, Anupama Chopra tells us that compared to the book, the film is far more comforting and palatable. But perhaps that is not such a bad thing,” that as a cinematic experience it is “deeply satisfying,” and finally, “Great horrors unfold and yet, when the deeds are done, a sense of redemption remains.” More appalling words have rarely been printed.

None of us will accept a film about the Delhi gangrape which has “no opinion”, which “doesn’t take sides”. Allow me to take an intentionally vulgar liberty and imagine that film. There are three friends who live in Delhi. They are working class guys with ambitions for the future and some hardened cynicism about the city. They have personal crises and endearing character traits. One day something terrible happens in the life of one of the friends. He gets unrecognizably drunk and his friends are shocked by his murderous rage. They try to calm him down. They borrow a friend’s chartered bus and go for a spin around the city.

Is this scenario already making you uncomfortable? Is there any way I can make a girl’s rape-murder seem like a tragic fallout to you – instead of an outrageous event that must be addressed now? But I assure you, that film will be made. And we will walk out of the theatres with our popcorn tubs empty and our hearts full.

 


 

7 comments:

  1. It seems as art has been seized by market, cinema has been seized by state.

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  2. This is a fantastically argued piece, and I agree with almost all of it. There are a few things however that I looked at differently.

    First, I think that the question of truth can't be limited to what really happened. We might know it, it might be contested, but I think that it isn't as much about what really happened, as it is about how that event was co-opted. And in not going to the site of the Sabarmati Exp, the film, perhaps inadvertently, gives prominence to the way in which the event was manipulated to fire the riots. In saying this, I also feel that we need to address how the situation in Godhra exploded the way it did, spreading past the state machinery and involving/inviting "regular people". Someone, (I think it was Ranjani), mentioned the importance of Omi as symbolic of the aimless youth that were presented with religion and revenge as an anchor. I see the problem in making it about his personal loss, but I also understand how rhetoric was utilized to present the loss as a collective and consequently personal one.

    I also think that a number of critiques of the film have not addressed the role that the earthquake (and its aftermath) plays in the film. Needless to say, the relief camp becomes the space that highlights this most visibly. I won't deny the naive and simplistic way in which that has been dealt with, but I also see Omi's complicity in refusing food tags to the Muslims as a turning point of the film (and their relationship as well). Omi is of course the central character in the way I (and I am sure others) read the film, and I find his character development unbelievably deft.

    I won't deny that the film does play it safe on some accounts, but I was more intrigued by the things it does differently and here I agree with Farhana Ibrahim's comment. That said, I am in agreement with Iram's argument about its deeply troubling historiographic potential.

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  3. Debashree Mukherjee- This is a very important and brilliant look at what surrounds Kai Po Che and of course the film itself for various reasons. I feel that any kind of writing about a film as problematic as Kai Po Che needs to pull in and reference the same universe from which the film (and in this case also the book) emerges and into which it unfolds. This may sound like the most basic thing to say but what i find absolutely mind boggling is that in almost all commentaries about the film there has been a deep reluctance to directly connect the events of 2002 to the film. While all of them refer to some misty, far away 'riot' like an uncomfortable family conversation, there is absolutely NO contention on 'facts', that otherwise seem so sacred to the Rajdeep Sardesais and Arnab Goswamis of our mainstream media.
    Your piece takes the bull by the horns and brings us back to the most important question 'do we know and remember what happened? Also, what is more horrifying- what happened or its incomplete forgetting?
    In this context i am also very troubled by cat in the hat's response. Even as i read it over and over again, i cannot understand how one can say that "the question of truth can not be limited to what really happened". Who was the event 'co-opted' by, was there a difference between those who engineered it and those who co-opted it? Of course, violence like this does create the possibility of "regular people" doing things they would otherwise not do. But if those "regular people" no matter how misled they were, were indeed raping, looting and killing with precision then shouldn't one be thinking more about what constitutes regular every-dayness? rather than thinking about people as some agency-less, hypnotized mass that was "presented" with religion and violence and they could not refuse. Infact if stretched to its logical conclusion, then this kind of an argument seems very similar to 'the brain-less masses get influenced by messages from top down' kind of argument, that we have collectively learnt to reject and argue against.
    Again, about Omi. It is indeed correct that his character is well developed and is brought out well. But the problem is that the people who were directly affected by the decision he is shown taking, seem to be of no significance to the film. Iram Ghufran in her piece on this blog link here- http://pharaat.blogspot.in/2013/03/kai-po-che-and-politics-of-appeasement.html?spref=fb
    has raised this question in a very powerful way. What happens to Ali's family is not something the film is interested in. The fact that EVERY PIECE of writing on the film too, didn't not care to ask the question points to the horror of forgetting.

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    1. I am more or less repeating myself, but to clarify: The event that I was referring to is the fire/burning of the Sabarmati Express. I am arguing that who/what started the fire on that train is still not clear and Modi used that to his advantage. I'm sure you agree that that was used as a trigger to the Godhra massacre.

      To clarify my position, I was not suggesting that the ordinary person lacks agency or is blameless. My position was centred on Omi and a particular group that he represents. In fact the interesting thing about Omi's character is that he chooses to be active in the party and an actively communal person well before his parents are killed. Even though the narrative focussed on him, he was clearly not the only person attacking the Muslim community. In fact, like Farhana, I feel that the film's most problematic cop-out is the forgiveness at the end.

      I think that Wake (why that name by the way?)is right in saying that one needs to think about what underlies our everydayness, because that question is at the heart of every widespread massacre, including the Holocaust.

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  4. Hi Kuhu/Cat in the Hat. Thanks for your comments. They allow me to clarify a couple of things:
    1. I did not suggest that we get shown the Sabarmati train burning. That would be a bit ridiculous, not just because we can't agree about what happened, but also because we can agree that visual representation is manipulable and the camera is never 'objective'. There is also the larger question about the photograph or cinema as evidence, and how the more we try to fix meaning in an image, blow up the image, the grainier the 'truth' becomes. The point i'm trying to make is that no matter what the film showed or didn't show, it's politics does not lie so much in representational questions but narrative politics, primarily in establishing causality.
    2. Omi: As someone who used to write fiction film, I see no problem in converting historical events into personal crises experienced by fictional protagonists. That is how drama and affect works. The problem arises when our emotions, as spectators, align completely with the emotions of a character who has made some reprehensible choices in life. That is a fascinating filmic + spectatorial moment. Of course there are young impressionable boys & girls who wander through life looking for purpose; there are people who get 'swept away' during a "riot; but any fiction producer knows how to distance her voice from that of the characters. If there is no distance between the two, it is a political decision that must be examined.
    3. Wake's comment about the everydayness of violence: I think that's a great point and I would recommend a piece by Deepika Deosthalee, a feminist perspective on KPC - http://www.filmimpressions.com/home/2013/02/essay-kai-po-che-and-the-bechdel-test.html. She argues that the film endorses a level of everyday violence and aggression, not in the character of Omi, but of Ishaan who slaps the kid, destroys a guy's car etc. and the film "asks us to accept it as an aspect of their coming-of-age (and indeed of our social make-up) and expects us to forgive its protagonists their transgresses, embracing them as heroes." This same coming-of-age violence gets channeled into the genocide by Omi and again we forgive it. That, to me, is unbelievably wrong.

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  5. Hi! Great site! I'm glad to have stumbled upon it! I'm trying to find an email address to contact you on. Thanks and have a great day!

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    Replies
    1. Hi, Thanks for reading. Send me your email and I'll drop you a line.

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