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To Understand Indian Politics, Watch Movies

Did Kaho Na Pyaar Hai predict Demonetisation?

For a country so completely captivated by its films and politics, it’s barely a surprise that many films turn out to be the most effective political treatises — Mukkabaaz and Newton are the most recent examples that spring to mind. Away from the self-involved chatter of newsrooms and edit meetings, some films manage to unspool the many complex threads that shape the political fabric of the country.

Of course, this also means that films are rife with political dogfights, interventions and sometimes, instructions. Consider the absurd political tug-of-war involving Padmaavat; the banning of Sexy Durga and Nude at the International Film Festival of India (IFFI); and emergency- and black-money-themed films ostensibly commissioned to glorify the current dispensation and demonise the past — Indu Sarkar, Baadshaho, Commando 2: The Black Money Trail.

What’s more curious, however, is how films — both new and old — can lend a lens to understand the machinations of those in power. Inspiration to understand these can arrive from the surprising sources. Here are three that I found:

Kaho Naa…Pyaar Hai (2000) is better known as the film that inspired the onset of a very twenty-first-century syndrome in India: obsessive-compulsive gymming. Of course, it also heralded the coming of a new star blessed with great looks and dancing prowess: Hrithik Roshan. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Vrajesh Hirjee rids two magicians of their dinner jackets by convincing them he’s offering free laundry. Later, he and Roshan turn up and accidentally set off a chain of secret magic tricks linked to the suits, delighting the audience. The magicians are shown parading around semi-naked waiting for their laundered suits to turn up. For better or worse, it reminded me of the farce called demonetisation — convince a bunch of people that you’re working for their benefit, but actually, take the clothes off their backs. The entire scene is eerily prescient of how the government went about the task earnestly, stripping the economy of its vigour, bringing ruin to the agrarian economy and conveniently getting rid of Raghuram Rajan and ignoring experts in the field.

Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983) will forever remain known for the madcap Mahabharata scene at its denouement. However, a scene earlier in the film resonates more deeply with me. A very drunk Om Puri comes across a coffin comprising a dead man (Satish Shah) on the road. Addled by alcohol, Puri hilariously tries to figure out why the man in the car isn’t moving. Finally, after even trying to fit his spare wheel on the coffin, he concludes that the coffin is a sports car. While it’s tempting to look for demonetisation analogies everywhere — and this scene comes close — it reminds me of something else: the current dispensation and its scorn for experts (“hard work vs Harvard”); and its can-do attitude that mistakes movement for progress. Recent reports have consistently bemoaned how the recent hike in tariffs on smartphones, for instance, is a move towards protectionism that the government (ironically) claims to disavow. It’s almost as if the left-hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.

And, finally, Newton (2017), a biting satire on the electoral process in India, delivered a number of memorable scenes. None to me was as memorable as the scene in which an important police official brings a foreign journalist to witness the miracle of Indian democracy. Recalcitrant tribal villagers are made to fall in line and vote (by force), and the journalist departs satisfied that India’s democracy is indeed whole and hearty. It’s eerily reminiscent of how the current government is run purely by PR releases and Whatsapp forwards. Consider Gujarat: the holy shrine every Sangh-Parivar supporter bows his (or her) head to. During the recent state election campaigns, Manmohan Singh pointed out that the state has regressed on critical areas of human development in the past 22 years, falling behind states like Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Or as is oft-mentioned — China’s ambitions run forth unfettered as it buys ports, builds roads, faces off against America, while India focuses on a temple in Abu Dhabi and a state of Shivaji in Maharashtra. Despite cheap oil and a general upswing in the global economy, India’s GDP growth has struggled under the NDA, yet for all we know we’re living in the greatest age since the Gupta empire.

The tragedy of an audience in thrall to the absurdness of its films is that balderdash can very often pass muster. Equally, its triumph lies in the certainty of failure for those who believe that urban multiplexes alone can deliver monster hits. Here, past performance is a poor indicator of future success. Once the magic fades, the common man — not the middle-class whiner — rises and walks off in search of the next, more convincing set of actors.

Shubhodeep Pal is a writer and photographer. He tweets as @diaporesis.

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