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

March 19, 2013

Guest post 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.

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.)

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.

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.

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.
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 )

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.

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.

(Debashree Mukherjee is a PhD scholar at the Department of Cinema Studies, New York University. She writes at Phar’aat.)
11 Comments leave one →
  1. Mridula permalink
    March 19, 2013 5:18 AM

    Its a film at the end if the day, it would do us all much service to understand that and take it in the spirit of cinema rather than bash it for wrongly depicting history and factual events.

  2. Ramiz Ilham Khan permalink
    March 19, 2013 5:33 AM

    KPC is a carefully designed & systematically executed step using cinema as a medium to somehow brainwash the healthy & earning metro citizens of the nation. So that they don’t remain in guilt for the rest of their lives, so that they live in an illusion which reminds them constantly that after all we need to forget all that. Past is past kind of statements, which are not only stupid but chillingly brutal. KPC is the kind of stuff that creates this so called collective conscience, most of the assholes decide what side they’re on after they’ve been guided by a popular movie. I clearly remember having a conversation with someone after he’d watched, ‘The Legend of Bhagat Singh’ & this guy was arguing with me about a scene where Mohandas Gandhi was asked about why he didn’t sign the Gandhi-Irwin pact. Now how could I explain to him without giving him a few books to read & he was talking anti Gandhi simply because a movie scene gave him an impression that had Gandhi signed, probably Bhagat Singh would’ve been saved. So you see how these things impact these people with no information et all. A few days back at my friend’s office, the boy whose job is to make tea for everybody was asking my friend, “Was Pakistan a part of India some years back?” – Now this guy who makes tea is going to save money to watch films, and guess what he’s going to make out after watching KPC, I shudder to think about how his innocent mind will be affected. KPC is an act of presenting the truth in a way that it appears to be lighter in the eyes of the public. Imagine a toned down Holocaust movie trying to say, big deal, so what, past is past, it wasn’t that horrific also, let’s talk about friends, Hitler wasn’t that bad. And then one day, the holocaust will be repeated!

    • March 19, 2013 12:38 PM

      Completely off the point – Can you please recommend a good book on Gandhi-Irwin for me?

      As for this movie trying to brain-wash people in metros, those who buy into Modi and his greatness do not need any brain-washing. They have always had those prejudices, this is a just a convenient time in Indian politics to give voice and Bollywood-space to those prejudices. I like to believe that it is still not a majority of people but I guess we will find out in the next elections.

  3. Shruthi permalink
    March 19, 2013 8:00 AM

    What this movie showcases is my exact problem with Chetan Bhagat and his writing. There’s nothing of substance there. He encourages a complacence and the so-called average Joe is okay with being in this universe where everything is pretty, and then it gets ugly for a brief while and you’re able to shrug it off and move on. The fact that something as horrific as State-sponsored violence has no lasting impact on your mind and your perception of the world is hugely problematic.

    Ridiculous.

    And the worst part? He is getting away with it, with not addressing the issue and taking on the mantle of being the only writer who ‘addressed’ the Gujarat riots. If I were a conspiracy theorist, I’d say this book was commissioned by the Gujarat government!!!

    I wouldn’t blame the filmmaker entirely. The root of the problem is the writing that has already influenced mass opinion. The filmmaker just brought it to the big screen and sold it as a buddy movie, a genre he has successfully dabbled in. He has a living to earn. If he had any semblance of a conscience he wouldn’t have made this film in the first place. He did for reasons other than making a point. And that’s another unfortunate fallout in a country that takes someone like Chetan Bhagat seriously.

    • March 19, 2013 12:08 PM

      Chetan Bhagat is your average upper middle class Hindu male who has deep prejudices but cannot fully give reign to them. Doing so would expose him to be a ‘Third-World brute’ to the Western world he straddled for a while where he propounded equality because it affected him.

      Kai Po Chai is a good movie. A good Bollywood movie. Better than a Dabangg or a Himmatwala. The depiction of Gujarat riots in this movie is in keeping with the tradition of depicting cheesy Muslim characters right from Sholay to Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. We should stop expecting mainstream Bollywood to be our inner voice…….they are simply not equipped or interested. I think we should celebrate the fact that some movies now have a sensible story and fewer dance sequences.

      This IS a feel good movie and that’s the reason it is getting all this attention. Otherwise does anyone remember Parzania or Firaaq?

  4. Shaurya Tyagi permalink
    March 19, 2013 11:06 AM

    I think the irony of our lives is that we always want to jump onto something so that we can wash away our wrong doing. You would not condemn or do anything about the wrong which is still happening in so many places and ways but instead you would point fingers towards cinema saying that it didn’t portray the equation well. I think sometimes we shouldn’t let a director of movie take a stand rather than that we should ourselves do that.

    KPC was not made with an intention to make the masses get known about a fact. What and how it happened is already known to us and still we clap in loud volume when Modi speaks. The director of the movie is not to be blamed here because he wanted to show what friendship means and not how Godhra happened.

    I think it’s high time that we start pushing blames and let creative liberty of cinema be affected because we don’t have what it takes to voice our opinion.

  5. Samina Motlekar permalink
    March 19, 2013 12:39 PM

    We can talk all we can about Kaipoche and the message it sends out, but in forums like this we are essentially preaching to the converted.The larger world of movie audiences out there demands pre chewed, semi digested entertainment and argument and nuance are lost on them. This is all the more true for the urban upper middle class lost in a consumerist fantasyland. The popular filmmaker and the writer in the end is what the audience is- impatient, devoid of courage and in search of maximum profit.

  6. March 19, 2013 1:54 PM

    Debashri, this is a very well written post and admire you effort to face the movie head on. And certain facts simply shouldn’t be brushed off in the name of commercial marketability. However, I feel you have interpreted the film wrongly in one aspect, who it “blames” for Godhra. I don’t think the film implies at all that Muslims are responsible for Godhra. In fact by not having the news or any one else apart from the politician point to Muslims, the film hints at the leaders creating a narrative.

  7. Saurabh permalink
    March 20, 2013 10:25 AM

    Excellent post Debashree. The middle classes walks into a movie to see something ‘unreal’, where they can mostly have a ‘break’ from all of their lifes. They are spending a lot of money right, how can they be again expected to appreciate ‘reality’! You try and talk to them something which is much more real, let alone show a senseful movie, they will bite you in the hand. Development, politics and injustice have skewed meanings in such minds – a mind largely dominated by consumerist ideals of life. Although it is not that these people vote without their minds, but the minds are so easily swayed by perpetrators in showing them the dream of ‘development’, that no matter of engagement is usually successful to sway them back.
    The irony of all this is this is the same class that is thought and publicised to be the drivers of change – noone appreciates the toiling masses that clean their homes, clean their toilets, works endlessly in factories and agricultural fields, children who work in explosive factories so they can celebrate a cricket match win. Does all of this flash in memory even for the more sophisticated sections – the elites? Its not enitrely the middle-class liberalism which is to be blamed. It is this ideal of living life away from the nitigrities of society – something which alientates people from their society – which is most pervasive and dangerous. What generation are we aspiring to become – is the most frightening of all.

  8. Observer permalink
    March 22, 2013 12:44 AM

    My two cents. I might be an emotional fool but what I felt after the movie was that this was the best testament that one can find in today’s Bollywood against riots. I say this because both me and my friend who watched it felt it underline the futility of riots (engineered or otherwise). And this is done through the helplessness of Omi who lost both his parents and his best friend (whom he killed by mistake, when he was trying to shoot someone else ).
    To expect more from mainstream Bollywood is too much

  9. Anupama permalink
    March 29, 2013 8:14 PM

    “This post rejects that opinion and appeals for responsible film criticism and an alert, active mode of spectatorship.” – Whatever else you may have written in your article, I didn’t find responsible film criticism within it: by that I, for one, would assume an engagement with the film as a film – analysing it on many other levels than just the one – of plot (in this you don’t differ from average audiences and reviewers, though you are a film scholar). Why did you not discuss the screenplay, the visual play that is the film; or the edit, which is so often the key to analysing any argument a film might be making; or the camerawork, or the sound? It’s always possible to criticise any work of art, propaganda or pamphleteering using the opinions one subscribes to: it’s a bit harder to take it apart in a way that shows your very real understanding of the medium you’re talking about. Yes, perhaps Kai Po Che is everything you say, and more…but do show your readers how it was done! Was there also something about how the film was shot and framed, edited, directed and produced? Was something going on in the soundtrack? Were there certain angles, certain frames, some kind of pacing – all of which made up the grip of the narrative that is (as you say) a glossing over of the 2002 riots? Attack the structure, take apart the art of it, and then you might have a much more powerful argument.

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