“With his working class ties and his radical plans”: The nation, memory, and the man in ‘Agneepath’ (2012)
By Supurna Dasgupta
“Hindi cinema manages diversity just like a zookeeper manages his menagerie.” (Mukul Kesavan)
Diversity, besides being a necessary ideal (and of course a veritable reality in the sub-continental context), is also a dangerous thing – a slippery thing which, like a cipher, alters its meaning even with a little change in the nuances. The national pastime of most North Indian households, Bollywood, is a strange zoo-keeper, who like his (and it is mostly a ‘he’) Orwellian predecessor, believes that “some animals are more equal than others”. Dharma Production’s Agneepath (2012) is the story of bourgeois mentality posited against feudal tyranny, and yet it attempts to acquire the flavour of a ‘proletarian revolt’ burgeoned on by the strength of populist religiosity. It enacts the rather painful and reluctant transition, which the nation constantly negotiates between the epic and the novelistic, the civilizational and the national, fighting a reality of diversity with violent constructions of hegemonic national memory, establishing pure categories to resist cultural interpenetration and ‘contamination’. The extremely inspiring phenomenon when the hero does rise out of ashes (quite literally) and wakes up to Bollywood’s marker of heroism – A-C-T-I-O-N – after having been stabbed repeatedly by a monstrous man thrice his weight, at that climactic point our pure-Aryan, bronzed Hrithik Roshan becomes the “pure gesture that separates Good from Evil” (Barthes, 1972). Agneepath is a wrestling match of words and swords escalating into what Roland Barthes would call “a spectacle of excess”. Yet what remains to be asked are two very essential questions. First, are political propagandist overtones being ‘naturalized’ within the formula, such that the semantic impacts of the same are not even being paid heed to? Secondly, and perhaps, more importantly, what are the perils of the liberal orthodoxy, which allows democratic spaces for vitriolic hatemongering?
A short account of the indulgences would be necessary to start off this dissection. The overabundance of clichés and stereotypes gives the movie an encyclopedic value, yet it falls short of an epic in its (hopefully) inadvertent mixing of tropes from both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Just like the state-wise maps of India, which school-students are taught to fill out using specific shades from their crayon-boxes, the film flaunts remarkable consistency in its colour-coding of its characters: specific minority communities in jarring shiny hues, villain in full black, the wronged Gandhian martyr-victim in full-white, and the hero-turned-avenger (read: innocence-corrupted) in white shirt and black pants. The hero and the police inspector, both smeared in the saffron of the Ganapati Puja, pursue the villains who are obviously never the dominant section in terms of religion (even caste), gender, or attractiveness. All the crimes of the devoutly Hindu and highly Aryan-featured hero are forgiven by the fact of him being the disinherited, the disenfranchised, and ‘the wronged’. In fact, the mother, who refuses to acknowledge any ties with him until the very end, is often persuaded by the film to ‘forgive’ her son for he is ‘fighting’ to avenge his father’s murder. The myth, on which this revenge-frenzy is being invoked and established, is one where villainy is seen to be a function of uncouth-ness and also vice-versa. If both religion and physical appearance are being made to stand as symbols within a mythic universe of Good and Evil, then the universe is essentially false, for every ‘myth’ (in a Barthesian sense) is at a tension with the historically and materially real: “This is but a false dilemma. Myth hides nothing and flaunts nothing: it distorts; myth is neither a lie nor a confession: it is an inflexion (Barthes, 1972).”
A primary approach at addressing these questions would be undertaken by comparing the first Agneepath (1990) and its re-make in 2012. What are the changes that have been made in the second one, and what might have inspired such changes? The character of Rauf Lala is a new one in the second film, and the character played by Mithun Chakraborty in the first film has been done away with in the re-make. Cinematographically, the incarnation is far superior as far as technological advancement is concerned, but it lends the film a mythic proportion through grey dark visuals which, besides heightening the melodrama, also removes from it any recognizably moderate modicum of reality, perhaps to make it appear more sinister and timeless such that the diasporic audience could better appreciate the cinematography of a post-liberalization ‘globalized’ India, which is now ready to have purchase in the myth of an indigenous Superman.
The year 2012 is largely distanced from 1990 not in terms of time, but in terms of socio-cultural semiotics. What Raymond Williams calls residual, dominant, and emergent trends in culture may be traced at either point. The 1990s was the absolute lee-end of the era of the underdog, the angry young man, driven by what Nikhat Kazmi calls “ire in the soul”. The cult of family drama was at its peak, with its connotations of revenge, justice, paternalism, and patriarchy, accepted despite and with its feudal overtones. The Indian audience in 2012 has seen the family being sidelined, the cult of the globalized ‘individuals’, the angry young men morphing into plotting immigrants, and feudal patriarchs in the form of large-scale entrepreneurs. In 1990, the underdog being re-integrated within the society was a common theme, a motif which was popular in Bombay cinema. Mithun Chakraborty’s role in the 1990 movie was therefore hailed with great popularity; Amitabh Bachchan was shown to be avenging his father’s death but was, first of all, a messiah for the society. However, the 2012 version could not take the risk of introducing another ‘disinherited good guy’: sympathy could not be fractured even if purely for the plot of the film and the extremely unscrupulous and selfish hero. Yet, it deprives the hero of the admiration that he strives for and the rippling muscles lose their impact after the initial scenes: the hero gains pity, but very little admiration. A movie-review of the 2012 version says: “Appearing real and rooted, Hrithik Roshan chooses to play Vijay Chauhan with pain and pathos, almost leaning towards self-pity. With ‘good son’ Krishnan Iyer (the inimitable Mithun-da!) not around, Viju cannot possibly play his mother’s egoistic ‘bura beta’.” Yet, for the sake of action and screen time, another character had to be introduced, and hence the birth of Rauf Lala: an addition to the pile of ills that will be razed to the ground, another obstacle to be overcome by the hero; but more significantly, a hefty woman/child trafficker with clear markers of his religion who would be killed by a perfectly able-bodied majoritarian, saffron-smeared hero from the margins of the society. So the movement from the periphery to the center for the disinherited poor Hindu is through the extermination of the financially powerful and necessarily evil Muslim. In 2012, what else had changed so drastically? Was it the subtle but sure rise of a particular right-wing politics prepping the grounds for elections? Have the culture factories been indoctrinated as such to make ‘natural’ the obvious political insinuations tinting the vast canvas of Bombay cinema?
In his essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin provides a cogent interface between politics and cultural products. Benjamin suggests that through mass production, art is detached from its basis in ritual to become based on political praxis. One must note that the relegation of the image from art to tangibility also runs the risk of the image influencing the audience from stupefaction to practice.
Agneepath in 1990 and Agneepath in 2012 have as many breaks as they have continuations. If religion and class connotations changed a lot, the tropes of family and gender maintained a regrettable similarity. The father-son relationship is at the heart of this: the feudal father is killed off by the villain himself, the trafficker is put on the pedestal of a father-figure by the hero only to be killed off strategically at the right moment, and the spirit of the father of the hero haunts the peripheries of the consciousness of his village, who, like the audience in the auditorium, are witness to this massacre of the institution of family itself. Yet family must be contained within the dynamics of a strange ‘justice’: all the father-figures are (or are rendered) impotent for this is the story of their sons making their way through the world using them as pawns, their quest for their personal justice, the blame for which is conveniently shifted onto the fathers. This emasculation of all the paternal figures might have led to a breach in the law of the Father, but it becomes a law of the brother, a fraternity that limits the scope of the women’s vision. The film opens with child rape and murder, followed by a pregnant mother and a pre-pubescent sister, and then a vulnerable devoted lover, all within the site of refuge, which moves from the moral centre of the school-teacher’s house in Mandwa village to the social centre, which is an urban slum-cum-brothel. Emancipation of the women in the site of the brothel through the images of the self-sufficient mother and the enterprising lover might be an approach which is too hopeful. Barthes says: “Where then is man in this family picture? Nowhere and everywhere, like the sky, the horizon, an authority which at once determines and limits a condition. Man is never inside, femininity is pure, free, powerful; but man is everywhere around, he presses on…a world without men, but entirely constituted by the gaze of man all sides, he makes everything exist…”
That the women in this text are given only the semblance of agency is made evident soon: the young sister is driven to the verge to being sold off, the surrogate mother-figure is almost beaten to death by her husband and is salvaged by the young hero, the love-interest of the hero starts her own business and is killed off on the day of her marriage. Eunuchs are ‘granted’ the agency of being the fighting subalterns from the threshold space who nevertheless form a buffer between the protagonist and the antagonist whose fight ensues over their corpses. Moreover, it appears as though family has been devastated and yet sought to be maintained within the dynamics of the film, which leaves the audience bewildered, pulled in the diametrically opposite directions of condemning the unscrupulous (and often dictatorial) paternalism and admiring the lingering influence of the words of the father. In the 1990s, family wasn’t a negotiable category. But in 2012, not being able to resolve the neo-liberal globalitarian tension between freedom from the family and voluntary belonging, Hrithik’s death in his mother’s lap is pitiable at best, with almost an unmensch-ian quality to the preceding violence, which renders the rhetoric of revenge superfluous, and the memory of an idyllic nation and national fraternity inaccessible.
Cinema, if viewed as a vehicle of ideology, has to be considered within the matrix of its patrons. One of the important factors to be considered here is the Indian State’s ambivalence towards cinema: the Congress was never an active supporter of commercial film-makers, continuing with the tradition of their founding fathers, Gandhi and Nehru, who treated films with disdain as foreign and crass. Tejaswini Ganti points out that “the intersection of the neo-liberal economic rhetoric with the rise of cultural nationalist politics signified by the Hindu nationalist and pro-business Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is another important factor in the shifting attitudes towards the Hindi film industry.” In an editorial for Cahiers du Cinéma, Jean-Luc Comolli and Jean Narboni theorize the ways in which film texts are products of the dominant ideological system out of which they are produced. Certain texts have an explicit political content but do not effectively criticize the ideological system in which that content is embedded because such films “unquestioningly adopt its language and its imagery.” The question arises whether this problem is purely an academic problem of the bourgeois ‘liberal’ mentality. Citing a few examples of spectators from India and abroad, Shakuntala Banaji says:
“Might it be plausible to see, in the increasing visibility of Hindu religious iconography and ritual in some commercial Hindi films, an effort by the members of the film industry to bind some viewers to a certain vision of the Indian society while at the same time excluding others?….what then, of those, in this case diasporic, viewers who actively participate in the film imaginaries of the Indian nation? If spectatorship continues in the activities and beliefs viewers hold long after a film has ceased to play before them, are they then being mobilized by the discourses of films as part of the ideological work of the Hindu Right in India?”
The problem with films like Agneepath is essentially (emphasis added) at the semantic level, and even at the risk of appearing unduly anxious (as befits the stereotype of the activist), there is a dire need to probe into the materiality of this problem and to address it. The reason behind the anxiety is a kind of dissolution of the ego that happens to the audience in a film auditorium: there’s a re-definition of the ego with respect to the movie on the screen, with what Laura Mulvey calls the “misrecognition” of the ego and the ideal ego mediated by extremely fraught “structures of fascination”, producing a trajectory of spectatorship which stretches beyond the screen.
The drama that runs the risk of being carried outside the space of the theatre is perhaps as sinister as the drama being played out on the screen. Agneepath (2012) will perhaps resonate in the minds of fanatics and patriarchs as a lasting example of virile messianic majoritarian forces that shall raze all ‘evils’ to the ground, and not as the inspiring example of the son of an “organic individual”, not a Vijay Deenanath Chauhan of 1990. Tanika Sarkar seems to have articulated the deepest fears of the ‘liberal’, who is torn between the desire to ban fundamentalist propaganda and the ethical constraints of being a ‘liberal’: “There will be a massive effort by Hindu Rashtra to produce a will to forgetting, to make things that happened disappear from memory, to fill up memory with images of things that had not happened, to generate counterfeit collective memories, amnesias.”
Agneepath (2012) embodied a dialectic of remembering and forgetting, which is very different from its predecessor: the vision of the white-clad father walking away reciting the poem in the end of the 2012 version is hardly a reconciliation with non-violence; if anything, it showed up, in naked contrast, the violence of the preceding ‘justice’ and the impotence of the ‘poetic ideal’ of Gandhian pacifism. The 1990 version could perhaps integrate this as a component of the family within its cultural semiotics; but in 2012, the singularity of the working class man in Agneepath strives to remain a re-make, because its “path of fire” seems to have blighted the memory of a national past, where equality was a quasi-socialist utopia and not the diasporic dystopia of Mandwa.
Ganti, T. 2004. Bollywood: a guidebook to popular Hindi cinema. London: Routledge.
Benjamin, W. 1968. Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books.
Comolli, J-L and Jean Narboni.1976. “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism”. In Movies and Methods: An Anthology, edited by Bill Nichols. California: University of California Press, pp. 26-27.
Barthes, R. 1972. Mythologies. New York: Noonday Press.
Banaji, S. 2006. Reading Bollywood: young audience and Hindi films. Palgrave Macmillan.
Mulvey, L. 1999. ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’. In Film Theory and Criticism:
Introductory Readings, edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, pp. 833-44.
http://www.telegraphindia.com/1120128/jsp/entertainment/story_15061127.jsp#.T3_qpPtQjfI; accessed on 20th April 2012.
Supurna Dasgupta is currently a doctoral student of South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago, and has completed her BA, MA and MPhil in English Literature from the University of Delhi. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.