Saturday, October 07, 2006

Film Review (C): Lagé Raho Gandhi Ji

INTRODUCTION: The Iconic Context
To make Gandhi relevant all over again, it became necessary to bring him back from the dead: this is precisely what Lagé Raho Munna Bhai (LRMB) does. Not surprisingly, Puritans, like a recent contributor to The Hindu Magazine, tend to disparage the ‘oversimplification’ and the ‘misrepresentation’ of the Mahatma’s philosophy in the film. Admittedly, in light of the vast corpus of Gandhi’s writings running into well over 90 voluminous volumes- personally, I can’t think of any other thinker who has contradicted himself more often during the constant if somewhat turbulent evolution of his ideas (to use his own words ‘...I claim for them nothing more than does a scientist who, though he conducts his experiments with the utmost accuracy, forethought and minuteness, never claims any finality about his conclusions, but keeps an open mind regarding them... Yet I am far from claiming any finality or infallibility about my conclusions... For me they appear to be absolutely correct, and seem for the time being to be final’) - it is virtually impossible to summarize his Thought within the structural constraints of contemporary cinema. Sir Richard Attenborough, who more than anyone else is responsible for the creation and popularization of the Gandhi-legend in mass media, took over three decades scripting his magnum opus, and still couldn’t quite succeed in satisfying all the Gandhians, each of whom prefers to ‘cast the Father of the Nation in his/her own image’. Rajkumar Hirani, the creator of LRMB, too, therefore can be forgiven the liberties he might have taken in resurrecting Gandhi. Even so, what does the LRMB-Gandhi represent?

At the heart of Mr. Hirani’s ‘Gandhigiri’ lies the New Testament concept of ‘Love thy enemy’. It is in total opposition to Bollywood’s most celebrated cultural icon that propelled Amitabh Bacchan to superstardom in the late ’70s- early ’80s: the Angry Young Man, who was only too happy to take the law into his own hands to achieve his ultimate objective: vindication by means of total annihilation of his enemy. If it is true that the icons we worship reveal something of ourselves- our hopes, aspirations and fears- as also the nature of the times we live in, then the cinematic rise of Mr. Bacchan mirrored the ascendance of yet another superstar on India’s political firmament: Sanjay Gandhi. Unlike previous superheroes, they didn’t subscribe to a Black & White morality but instead chose- rather bravely, one might say- to inhabit the in-between Gray. More often than not, breach of personal ethic- ‘thou shalt not kill’- was justified in the name of public good: the world after all is better off without the bad guys. Both took on the morass and corruption of the ‘System’ to the point of demolishing it altogether; both displayed little respect for the Rule of Law, which too was considered, in many ways, part of that System; both attained superstardom by means of untimely deaths (in Mr. Gandhi’s case, a real-life plane crash).

SYNOPSES: 3 in 1

All three aspects of the fin de siècle transformations of Bollywood’s cinematic cult-icons- from the Angry Young Man to the Romantic anti-hero (epitomized by Mr. Bacchan’s successor Shahrukh Khan) in the ’90s to the Gandhigiri-proselytizing don at the dawn of the new Millennium- symbolically come together as a Trinity in the story of the good-hearted goon Munna, as it unfolds in LRMB and its prequel “Munna Bhai, MBBS” (MBMBBS).

At the beginning of MBMBBS, we encounter Munna ‘Bhai’ (the latter being a polite euphemism for a don of substance) and his outrageously funny crony, fondly called ‘Circuit’, in the seedy but slightly sanitized Ram Gopal Verma-like Mumbai underworld. When Munna receives a telegram informing him of his parents’ arrival from his Haryana village, he and his gang hastily convert their double-storied shanty into a hospital, and Munna Bhai becomes ‘Munna Bhai, MBBS’. The charade, however, soon gets blown, and Munna undertakes to become a real doctor by enrolling in the local medical college. Through not-so-subtle methods, he persuades the previous year’s topper to take the entrance examination for him. Once at the medical college, Munna demonstrates that professionalism must be supplemented by passion- what he calls ‘jadu ki jhappi’ (lit: the magical hug)- in order to bring about complete healing à la Robin Williams in ‘Patch Adams’. Not surprisingly, he falls in love with his bête-noire, the Dean’s doctor-daughter, who represents the ideal blend of professionalism and passion. The message of the first Munna Bhai film is both simple and powerful: ‘Love heals.’

While the stage of MBMBBS is limited to a hospital, in LRMB, Mr. Hirani decides to let Munna Bhai take on the world. And who better than Gandhi- by far, the Greatest Icon to emerge out of the subcontinent- to guide him through it?

The plot is simple enough: Munna falls in love with the voice of a radio-jockey (RJ), Jhanvi; in order to have a mano-à-mano tête-à-tête with Jhanvi on the program, he enrolls in a telephonic radio-quiz on Gandhi, and with a little ‘persuasion’, wins; when she asks him how he knows so much about the Mahatma, he hurriedly declares himself a Gandhian Professor, and this faux-declaration gets him invited to her beach-front house, wherein live a bunch of testosterone-brimming geriatrics abandoned by their worldly offspring. In order to keep up the charade, Munna decides to digest every book he can find in the Gandhi library, and comes face to face with the Mahatma himself. Of course, nobody else except him- and the good Circuit, who professes to do so in order to humour his boss into believing that he is in fact not deranged-, can see the great soul. All is well until Munna’s partner-in-crime, the realtor-Sardar Lucky Singh decides to dupe him into taking Jhanvi and her gang of geriatrics to Goa on a fully-paid holiday so that he can take illegal possession of the house, which he must gift as dowry to have his only daughter married to a astrology-obsessed tycoon’s son. Now, in the ordinary course of things, Munna could well have forcibly repossessed the house for his paramour, but Gandhi has other plans for him, not very dissimilar from the unorthodox advise he gave Churchill in face of Nazi blitzkrieg: to shame the possessor into returning the property that is not his by making him realize the error of his ways. In this case, he wants everyone in town to send Lucky, who is no doubt ‘sick’, flowers and ‘get-well-soon cards’. So begins the rocking career of Munna Bhai as a Gandhian advise-dispensing RJ, and very soon, all of Mumbai is caught in the throes of good-natured ‘Gandhigiri’.

REALITY CHECK: ‘Cinematic Locha’
Does Gandhi really speak to Munna? Or is he hallucinating? To test this, the skeptic Lucky tricks him into attending a press conference where he has a psychiatrist ask him questions that only the Mahatma would know the answers to. When quizzed about his mother’s name, Munna’s Gandhi remains dumb. Our hero fails the test. He realizes that in fact, it wasn’t Gandhi speaking to him at all; but only an echo of what he had already read about him at the Library. The vision of Gandhi, therefore, was nothing but a residue of a chemical imbalance of the brain; or as Munna puts it, a ‘chemical locha’. Is the LRMB-Gandhi also something of a ‘cinematic locha’?

Perhaps. Yet the fact of its immense mass-appeal cannot be denied. Soon after the release of LRMB, the venerable Fathers at the Loretto Girls’ Convent at Lucknow decided to perform a ‘resurrection’ of their own: the result was an auditorium packed with panic-stricken schoolgirls as they were made to bear ‘witness’ to the spirit of Jesus- whose message, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi embodied- enter into the body of a monk. What followed was anything but Gandhigiri as zealots of the ABVP- the right-wing BJP’s student outfit- vandalized the institution. Admittedly, bringing back people from the afterlife isn’t the sure-shot way of spreading their message. The answer therefore must be sought elsewhere, in the mystery of both the medium and the message.

The medium, in this case, is Munna; while the message is Gandhi personified. The principal reason, in my opinion, for Gandhi becoming anachronistic- outdated- lies in the fact that before LRMB, we- the nation in general and its youth in particular- found his message both impractical and ineffective. Munna demonstrates that it is not necessarily so. A corrupt clerk can be embarrassed into paying the pensioner’s stipend when the latter decides to hand him the bribe in kind: in this case, by doing a veritable Full Monty. Likewise, a chronic paan-chewing spitter can be made to amend his ways by repeatedly wiping off the stains in his presence. In yet another scene, Munna shows the courage it takes to apologize, or even to tell the hard-truth. Indeed, Gandhigiri works best at an interpersonal level: its social impact is cumulative, as an epidemic- ‘break-out’- of love.

While composing his obituary for the Mahatma, Albert Einstein had warned us of the dangers of disbelief: "Generations hence shall scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked this earth." In the final analysis, I believe that the best way to make Gandhi relevant to our times is to demonstrate that he was more practical than most of us imagine him now to be. In other words, it becomes important to rescue his Humanity from the ever-burgeoning Mythology: to make him more believable to our age. To this end, subsequent entries in this blog will seek to reexamine the practical dimensions of the Mahatma's method and ideology throughout this month of his 143rd birth anniversary.


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