Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Gangajal and cop-out endings

This thought originated from a discussion on the Prakash Jha movie Gangajal. I liked the movie when I first saw it some years back. I love movies that have characters speaking Hindi the way it is spoken in the heartland. These movies are often based on political or social themes. Though I am from UP and even lived in Lucknow for the first eight years of my life, I haven’t been in close contact with any of the themes usually tackled. However, I feel a closeness to people from the Hindi heartland, their way of life and the issues that occupy them. I therefore hungrily consume anything from the movie industry that taps into this sentiment. When I first watched Gangajal I enjoyed the characterizations, dialogue and the atmosphere. I felt - and still do – that these were pitched just right by a man with a deep understanding and identification with the socio-political situations he recreates in his movies.

I had read about the Bhagalpur blindings in relation to reports preceding the movie. A crucial incident in Gangajal was closely based on the real life incident in Bhagalpur. In 1981, policemen in Bhagalpur blinded 31 undertrials in their own police station. They punctured the undertrials’ eyes with bicycle spokes and needles, poured acid into them and then covered their eyes with pads soaked in acids. The movie depicts the policemen’s actions as stemming from frustration and anger at their impotent system. What’s more, the city population holds the police as heroes for having meted out justice to criminals who would otherwise have escaped the law. The movie seeks to make the point that people get the police they deserve. Perhaps the director means to show that a society as violent and degenerate as this ends up being protected by equally degenerate people. The movie goes on to show how this sentiment of punishing criminals by blinding them gains wide acceptance and starts being applied wantonly. Once faith in authority or the rule of law is broken, society slips into degeneracy and inhumanity. The protagonist – Ajay Devgan – speaking as the voice of the director in the final act, lectures people on the need to preserve the humane core within themselves that differentiates them from scum, represented by a father-son politician duo. He saves the villains from the frenzied mob, arguing that civil society must let the law take its course and must not lose faith in it. More importantly, he saves people from themselves, from turning into demons.

SP Kumar’s (Devgan) last lecture jars a bit for being so transparent. The five minute monologue as the instrument of educating the movie watcher does not do justice to a movie that, thus far, has been making its point through dialogue, acting and screenplay. It’s a little like the play in which the narrator tells you exactly what you are expected to take away from what has unfolded in the last couple of hours in the play. That, however, is a question of the movie’s aesthetics and the quality of screenplay or direction. What really turned me off when I watched the film again recently is what follows the monologue.

The father-son duo slip SP Kumar’s grip and run into the town. He follows them through narrow lanes into a home. They fight and in the course of the fighting, they are pushed back on to a furrow with many pointed teeth. Both are stabbed through their eyes and die in an obvious reference to the blindings earlier in the movie. Now the problem with this ending is that it is a cop out. The director wants us to believe we should not take the law into our own hands, continue to have faith in it, that an eye for an eye has no place in a civilized society. Yet, he feels compelled to show the guilty suffering for their sins through cruel, retributive justice just a minute after he has made his point. Though violence is not the answer to civil society’s problems, comeuppance for the villains arrives in the form of the very violence society must abjure.

From touching complex social issues rather deftly in the earlier part of the movie, Gangajal gets reduced to yet another ordinary movie where the hero must rid people of evil, but must at the same time be noble and righteous. Therefore, the villains, as a result of their inability to settle at being forgiven and spared by the hero, make the mistake of trying to escape and kill themselves in the process by a variety of ways. Sometimes, they fall into gorges and sometimes they end up shooting each other and at other times, the police shoots them when they pull a final trick. The question of whether they should have been killed in the first place or not is never settled.

In all these films, the explicit message of rising above retribution and trusting the law to bring the villain to justice is subverted by the narrative. It is not enough to merely communicate your message in the movie. The message – if there is one you want to convey – must be communicated through the narrative as a whole. Gangajal is an example of an inconsistent narrative diluting the message and confusing the viewer. There are a number of movies that show guns, gangsters, sex and drugs only to tell us that they’re things that bring us to a bad end later on. Many of them do such a good job of glamorizing the very things they later condemn that the moral message of the film gets lost and the viewer carries back a more glitzy image guns and drugs.

So many people make the point that it is necessary for them to show certain things onscreen for building the characters and making them believable and so on. This is also the argument routinely trotted out by Bollywood in response to the Health Minister’s effort to ban smoking in films. It calls for a separate post but I think any industry has a social responsibility and seeing their idols smoke in movies is without doubt a major factor in making smoking look ‘cool’ and hence in children taking up the habit. Perhaps the answer is to not show people smoking when it can be done without, i.e. in most cases. The larger point, however, is that the narrative should not end up promoting the very things your movie seeks to show as undesirable or bad.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

The Man With No Name

Everytime I look at your picture
I can always see an arm rest on your shoulder
Even though I know it's only your hair
And the folds of your dress
I can never quite resist
Following the imaginary arm
Over your shoulder blade,
Through your careless hair
Around your neck,
Out of the frame
The arm that isn't there
Just like the Man With No Name

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