directed by Prakash Jha
As elections approach in an unnamed North Indian capital, an unanticipated crisis befalls the leading political party. When the chief suffers a paralytic stroke, the powerful dynasty that heads the party forks into two sibling factions (with characters whose similarity to real-life individuals has been widely commented on) that must now fight it out for the top post, as the fracas spirals into a desperate cycle of murder and betrayal. In broad outline, this is the plot of Prakash Jha’s portentously titled new film, Raajneeti. Yet despite the title, the subject and the setting, one must refuse to see this as a political film. We should not only resist the temptation of making crass analogies between the film’s characters and actual political figures, but we should also deny altogether that the on-screen shenanigans has anything to do with politics proper.
First, some reflections are crucial. A recent visitor to India, French philosopher Jacques Ranciere, often stresses that the question of politics arises when those with no means and no permanent position in the social structure insist that they be given equal foothold as those who have these advantages. Politics as the assertion of the unrepresented is perpetually contentious and destabilising. Accepting this axiom, another recent traveller to India, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, argues that the disavowal of political conflicts and their corresponding ideological visions is vital to the current form of politics. This non-committal, non-ideological version of politics – which he calls ‘post-politics’ – relies not on contentions but on pacts, whereby political decisions are arrived at through compromise, collaboration and apparent consensus that is less about representing people and more about administrating them.
The purported irrelevancy of ‘old’, blood-stained ideologies to contemporary politics goes unchallenged these days, and Jha himself has occasionally been a mouthpiece for this view. In pursuit of a party nomination as a candidate during last year’s election in his home state of Bihar, he announced that he enjoys ‘good relations’ with all parties in the state, and added, ‘I do not support the ideology of any one political party, but I do my bit.’ Fellow celebrity Bihari politician, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s Shatrughan Sinha, was right to quip, ‘When I was getting married, my problem was not whom to marry but whom not to marry. Likewise, Prakash’s problem is which political party not to join, rather than which one to join.’
There is one central way in which the very conception of a film such as Raajneeti is predicated on this ‘post-political’ stance. Jha’s depiction of an entire political field through the affairs of a single party is related to his assertion that the convictions of individual parties do not matter, as long as they ‘do their bit’. The ‘bit’ is, simply put, the mere execution of preordained acts of governance – the expert and pragmatic management of the people. This is why the film makes no offence with its all-powerful party, as long as it is presumably doing the bit. Jha’s ostensible intention is to underscore the abuses of political authority: the crime and corruption that always accompany such power. But rather, it seems to be the case that, with the innate drama of (ideology-based) politics discredited, the dramatic tension has to be sought in the abhorrent supplements of politics.
This is why the film’s ideology-spewing communist leader Bhaskar Sanyal (Naseerudin Shah) is summarily exiled so early in the film. His exhausted function is not only of fathering an illegitimate, mutinous scion – the Dalit leader Sooraj Kumar (Ajay Devgan) – but were Sanyal to stick around, he would keep the drama to properly political rivalries. Is not this why Raajneeti bears the tagline, ‘Politics … and beyond’? What is this onerous ‘beyond’ that is at once external to politics and at its core? What is it, if not the dislodging of the destabilising kernel of politics through a general evocation of fear and danger, crime and violence?
One of the inspirations for Raajneeti is the Mahabharata, with its bewildering moral explorations. Cramming the epic’s intricate scenarios into a three-hour film inevitably creates an overriding sense of urgency. The very pace of the movie sets its own moral code, as is most evident in the case of Samar Pratap (Ranbir Kapoor), who must transform – in the most impromptu way – from an apathetic outsider to his family’s political affairs into its heinous and self-righteous strategist-supremo. His utter lack of inner struggle over the issue highlights more consummately than the Mahabharata’s guilt-ridden Arjuna the brutal truth of the Bhagavad Gita: that detachment is the ultimate enabler of violence.
But here is the more important question. Why do we have two of Bollywood’s prettiest heroes (Arjun Rampal and Ranbir Kapoor) as surrogate Pandavas, with a passion for vengeance more repugnant than the villainy of the Kaurava stand-in Veerendra Pratap (Manoj Bajpai) and his right-hand man, the Karna-esque Sooraj? Jha means to show that modern-day ethics, especially when it comes to politics, can no longer obey the outmoded binary of right and wrong, which deserves callous muddling and reversing of a kind that has preoccupied Jha for some time now. Both Apaharan (2005) and Gangaajal (2003), his earlier films, present a crimino-political nexus in Bihar as a form of crossfire between ethical extremes.
It is worth pondering the genuine implications of Raajneeti’s moral ambiguity. In one scene, after an appalling display of vindictive rage (the off-screen outcome of which can only be murder and rape), our hero, Prithviraj (Rampal), returns home to be rewarded by his wife Indu’s (Katrina Kaif) critical epiphany: that deep down he is a kind and loving husband. Samar’s redemption is even more baffling, the urgent nature of which warrants a spoiler here. The flaming Samar corners the defenceless Sooraj in the end, and finds himself in an artificial quandary: to kill or not to kill. With Brij Gopal (Nana Patekar), fulfilling the perfunctory role of Lord Krishna, assuring Samar that this murder is essential, duteous, and therefore correct, Samar conclusively eliminates what Brij calls the ‘real threat’ to the party – the destabilising Dalit challenge in the film, the only prospect of a return to actual politics. In the next scene, we have Samar touching the feet of his subservient chauffeur, Sooraj’s adopter (the ‘good’ Dalit), who confers the final pardon.
One should see in these absolutions the denigration of political authority to a non-political mania for power, the acceptance of crime within the threshold of politics. The rescue must obviously come in the form of the police. No wonder that one compelling Bollywood convention of the last decade is the story of the supreme administrator we can call the ‘post-political’ hero – the cop as the people’s man, who makes the ugly decisions on their behalf. Superintendent of Police Amit Kumar, played by Devgan in Jha’s Gangaajal, is the exemplar who must learn that his noble duty towards the state and the code of law obligates a cold, detached capacity for lethal violence. Is not this the predicament also of Manoj Bajpai in Shool, Tusshar Kapoor in Khakee, and, conceivably, of Mumbai’s Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) Chief Rakesh Maria in real life? The uncommon circumstance in which this prototype is placed – of having to resist the impulse for compassion – tends to be boisterously celebrated as heroic, not quietly regretted as tragic.
The thematic triad of crime-politics-police in Jha’s films is often qualified by him and his admirers as realism. By this, they mean both that Jha is a realist filmmaker, and that the befuddled intersections between the three, as Jha depicts, really exist, above all in Bihar. The point of realist cinema, as once championed by many in India, used to be finding in the humdrum of everyday life profound conundrums of existence and expectation. Now it seems only to tell us, This is how it is. Get on with it! The pitfall of normalising the links between crime and politics is the alarming inversion that sees what is violently criminal as political (recall the Gujarat and Mumbai riots), and what is violently political as criminal (the Maoist insurgency, for example).
Ultimately, what is missing in Jha’s realism is the very reality that Indian society is undergoing a rapid and fundamental transformation, which nonetheless cannot find correspondence in the present form of politics. The energetic, larger-than-life spectacle that Jha peddles us as political reality in fact conceals the deep inertia of this domain.
~ Diwas Kc is a scholar and filmmaker in Kathmandu.
Image: Penguin India
Penguin India withdraws The Hindus
On 11 February 2014, Penguin India decided to recall and destroy all remaining copies of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History. The decision was part of an agreement between them and Shiksha Bachao Andolan, a Hindu campaign group that filed a case against the publishers in 2010, arguing that the book was insulting to Hindus and contained “heresies”.
From our archive:
Diwas Kc reviews The Hindus: An Alternative History. (March 2010)