Wednesday, June 14

The Baahubalian India of today

Knowing the success of Baahubali franchise pains me on many counts; the first of those are cinematic ones. It is difficult to digest that such a poor work can work so well, and, by power of money and regional-national feelings, even lead to some critics praising it; it is far more painful, though, to gauge the future trend of Indian cinema. Special effects sounded the death knell of much of U.S. cinema, especially the big studio Hollywood fare; while Europe has escaped largely unscathed from such temptation, India may not. Already, many Hollywood films are made keeping the China market in mind: which means Hollywood stars, special effects, and brand (franchise) name. A film may even bomb badly at the U.S. box office, but it may try to recoup costs in China, as is happening right now with the new The Mummy. More China specifics even cast an actor from there or set the film there: like the recent The Great Wall. India also will increasingly eye the China pie: with Dangal's success there and the recent casting of a minor Chinese actress in a big-budget, mainstream Hindi film (Tubelight) coming in as handy prompts. While quite a lot of good cinema in China has already died, which continues to make some fine indie films though in the additional backdrop of heavy state censorship, there has been no mourning but simply an obsession with brands, and thus Hollywood cinema; it also signifies the trend that much of Indian cinema will pick up: big, IPL-like tamasha. However, Baahubali also well reflects today's India, and it is no wonder that the film has been so successful. It is today's India that is painful to see, and yet one can only hope that a newly independent land is going through some growing pangs: but, have we seized (any) liberty?

Baahubali furthers the confusion between nation and state, and, even more remarkably, between a kingdom and nation-state: the denizens of the fictional kingdom of Mahishmati even have a national anthem, and everyone good has the "Jai Mahishmati" slogan. It is extremely problematic when kingdoms are painted by the same brush as today's nation-states, when a kingdom's subjects are portrayed as citizens (are they voting?) taking interest in the welfare of the state (oops, kingdom). It is even more problematic when one person takes up the role of messiah, and the rest of the "citizens" are shown as just looking up to him: so much like helpless puppies, as if they were born without an iota of brains. (Watch the scene in Baahubali 2 when the hero is making some fantastic gearings, though Charlie's Chocolate Factory could have done them better.) Baahubali, in fact, is quasi-identified with God himself: from the first part, when he lifts the lingam, through the continued frenzied adoration, to his non-stop exploits of stopping man, beast and armies in their tracks, single-handedly (after all, his name means "the one with strong arms"). A "state" with a leader worshipped like God, who is in fact God and supreme: to self-identify with either Baahubali or the gaping, adoring crowds is but one small step for many Indians, belabouring under grandiose visions of recapturing some glory, that in their imagination is lost and that though in reality may never have existed. For glory lies always in not being conscious of one's gloriousness: the Middle Kingdom (China) was great as long as it conceived itself as the Middle and be-all; today's China, even if it expands and usurps many seas, would not be able to lay claim to that. The U.S., which also in its consciousness is a type of Middle as many are unable or ignorant of all that lies outside the U.S., is however not great, for it is not the same Middle: the U.S. is arrogantly ignorant of the outside, while old and ancient Chinas were ignorant of the outside because of non-interest. Of course, many Indians today are rather more envious of, and knowledgeable about, their erstwhile white-skinned masters: they seek to emulate Europe and the U.S., though all the while also dreaming of their own "past glory". But the West, while committing many crimes, established itself on certain values, with which it did not compromise for a long, long time: Protestantism brought it pragmatism, reduced and even eliminated in many places the Baahubali worship syndrome or expectation of a Baahubali, and sought to progress by finding its own civilisational roots, in the form of the concept of law, more specifically law that applies to every single being, be it a king or a pauper. Today's West is firmly based on this concept: it has its own shortcomings, and current tendencies are trying to dismantle the base, but so far it has chosen a firm base with its own good and bad attributes.

It is not that India does not have its own civilisational roots: any civilisation has. But to reach them, India will have to short-circuit the dreamt-of, the imagined past glory. Those roots are in the value of dharma: and in dharma, you are first your own master, you decide your own obligation, rather than look up dazzled by Baahubali. Or rather, by Baahubali's might, for he (or anyone in the film) does not show a speck of intelligence (not to go as far as wisdom). Is it an indication that today's India worships might? Maybe, for Gandhi is despised by many young Indians; maybe, for belligerent actions by a state towards its own citizens or others are celebrated; maybe, for when you live in India these days, you feel afraid that you might be lynched any time if you utter what you think. After years of colonialism, India has not learnt the lesson: the British ruled over the world thanks to their cunning, not merely their naval forces. More importantly, a game can never be hastened; it can be, though, slowed so that fatigue may set in for the opponent. India is currently playing the hastening game (China has already been playing it since Mao came to power): there is a "rightful place" it wants to occupy. But what, and whose, exactly is this "rightful place"?

I can understand when, say, an intelligent student is not given admission somewhere and then that intelligent student resents, that she is not given her rightful place. But, resentment, if felt, for a truly intelligent student, is only against missing out on a fine opportunity for learning: it is motivated neither by jealousy against another (the one who got admission in her place), nor by thoughts of occupying a station of prestige. If so be the case, can the student be called intelligent, and can there be a case then? It is far more difficult to understand though what a rightful place for India can be: for India is an abstract concept. So, whose? "Every" Indian's? But then, I also come under the label of an Indian, and I am certainly not feeling like this, so certainly, there is no "every". The concept of universal may be absurd. So, "some" Indians'? And where lies their rightful place? They might be well-to-do engineers and bankers, but that rightful place is still not theirs: unless in their imagination, they think they are now respected, kow-towed to, they are "something". They want to be the Orwell, but without of course being handed over the rifle to shoot the elephant. But, then, aren't they dead? This is stagnation: if you imagine you have arrived at some station, what is there left to learn and to live for? Is death then the wished-for rightful place? In the dumb god-worship of Baahubali is reflected death on those ecstatic faces: do we want a land of dead people? Dead, who arise only to lynch others (to shoot elephants, in other words), and thus prove that they can merely serve as border guards, not advancing battalions.

Today's India, caught in the ism of "India" (what is India? is there one of it? or as many as the number of Indians? or more? or less? what is India?), bereft of humanity, given a semblance of poorly understood and misapplied liberty, and trapped by the crassly spectacular, is hurtling towards death: life does not exist in a mass trapped to stand up compulsorily to sing national anthems, but it exists rather in a body of men and women gathered when each one of them reasons, doubts, and then comes to sing a paean, but midway the paean might change tack and start a debate without fear of being lynched. Life exists in dharma, the ever-pulsating one, for at each moment, dharma's dictates may be different or may be even hard to interpret, caught as we are always in the play between rita and our own actions and their counterreactions (which themselves are all part of the rita). The base of today's India is neither law nor dharma: it is jealousy, it is narrow-heartedness. And that is a very weak base. Today's India's is admiring Baahubali because it itself is Bhallaladeva.

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