In search of the community spirit

The demon of prejudices and bigotry appears to have grown wilder with time. Time for us to come together and chain it. Cinema is a potent tool for the purpose

In search of the community spirit

Namrata Joshi

These days I wake up with a song playing incessantly in my head. “Maanjha”, the Amit Trivedi-Swanand Kirkire compositionin Abhishek Kapoor’s 2013 film Kai Po Che. Kirkire’s lyrics are sane, sobering as well as sanguine in the light of the torn social fabric they refer to in the Ahmedabad of the 2000s portrayed in the film. It’s the Gujarat tormented by earthquake, Godhra and communal riots.

It might seem simplistic, righteous and escapist to keep the faith in the community spirit, given the times, when the steadily growing political and religious polarisation has taken a vicious and seemingly irreversible violent turn, but I have been thinking a lot of late about the social pictures that our films have been trying to paint over the years.

I have been thinking of Hindi mainstream cinema that has been about neighbourhoods, localities, communitiesand how it has addressed ideas of diversity, eclecticism and differences as well as unity and solidarity within these settings.

Kai Po Che, based on Chetan Bhagat’s ‘The 3 Mistakes of my Life’, is a about how politics and intolerance in the world around them takes its toll on the innocent friendship of Ishaan Bhatt (Sushant Singh Rajput), Omkar Shastri (Amit Sadh) and Govind Patel (Rajkummar Rao). The three come together to open an academy to train and promote talented, young, local cricketers in Ahmedabad. Things unravel for them after the havoc wreaked by the earthquake and Hindu-Muslim politics rearing its ugly head in the relief camps and later after the Godhra train massacres and the riots.

Cricket is the glue that binds the society. And it’s for Ishaan—a frustrated local cricketer himself—to go beyond his personal self and circle of friends and family to use cricket as a thread to knit the fractures in the world around him. He does so by helping save the life (at the cost of his own) of a poor child—Ali Hashmi—who goes on to become the best batsman in the country.

One of the earliest portrayals of the community spirit in Hindi cinema might well be V. Shantaram’s 1941 classic Padosi. Set in a village where various communities are shown to be living in harmony, it centred on two friends—the Hindu played by Muslim actor Mazhar Khan and the Muslim character played by a Hindu, Gajanan Jagirdar, a deliberate bit of casting by Shantaram to make a larger point. It’s an outsider—a materialistic industrialist who comes to village to build a dam—who sows the seeds of mistrust and strife. Ultimately both friends fall for his deception, stand to lose it all and must pay with their lives for the animosity and discord. Does it ring a contemporary bell?

Yash Chopra’s 1959 film Dhool Ka Phool stressed on the secular community spirit by having a Hindu child brought up by a Muslim who underscores the idea of humanity above religion with the song ‘Tu Hindu Banega na Musalmaan Banega’. The converse happens in 1961 film Dharamputra, based on Acharya Chatursen novel, where a Muslim child is brought up by the Hindus.

Yusuf Naqvi’s 1977 film, Shankar Hussain, took the same idea forward and made the social picture more nuanced and layered by showing a Hindu doctor bring up a Muslim child alongside his own son but letting him practice his own religion.

Shimit Amin’s Chak De! India (2007) is about the neighbours, society and the nation at large getting prejudiced against a Muslim hockey player and Indian team captain Kabir Khan (Shah Rukh Khan) and blaming him for the world cup final defeat against Pakistan. It’s about his ostracization and eventual rehabilitation back in the community. But, beyond religion, the film is also about the women players rising above their regional differences to play as one united team. A team that becomes metaphor for regional harmony and strength.

While most Hindi films set in small towns are about all things familial, Aanand L. Rai’s Raanjhana (2013) showed the religious fabric of Varanasi, Aligarh and JNU in all its varied shades.

Similarly, Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy (2019) stayed focused on its underdog hero Murad (Ranveer Singh) and his rags to riches story. But, with him at its core Mumbai’s social milieu also came into the frame, complete with the deep economic and social inequities and disparities.

Religion is the crux in Anubhav Sinha’s Mulk (2018) as it captures the communal and cultural mix, the much-touted GangaJamuni tehzeeb of Varanasi where Hindu mornings begin with the sound of azaan and then we have them sneaking into their Muslim neighbour’s home for having kebabs on the sly. Sinha also shows the hidden flashpoints. Another Hindu neighbour, despite participating in their festivities, refuses to eat even the vegetarian dishes at a Muslim neighbour’s place. There are other prejudices brought to fore—how Muslims are equated with jihad and lack of education by those with the majoritarian agenda. It takes just a wee bit then for the amity to give way to chaos and loss of property, possessions, human lives and humanity at large.

Earlier Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Delhi 6 (2009) made the same point in a different community setting. It turned Old Delhi into a microcosm of community spirit but, like Mulk, with seeds of rot within.

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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