The Bajrangi Bhaijaan moment

The Bajrangi Bhaijaan moment
We want Bajrangi Bhaijaans, not Draculas and villains

Bollywood often does more for Indo-Pak ties than official level talks

BY Sagarika Ghose

By Sagarika Ghose

In times of terror attacks and stalled NSA-level talks, a mainstream Bollywood movie with the message of Indo-Pak peace and friendship has become a super hit. Jingoists on both sides of the LoC dominate the discourse but a rollicking picturesque caper that lurches from Himalayas to moonlit desert to Hindi heartland has boldly essayed a heart-tugging cross-border tale that mocks the industry of hatred and bureaucratic officialese that bedevil ties between South Asia’s main adversaries.

This is Bollywood as a subcontinental confidence building measure, Bollywood as ambassador of public diplomacy. Bajrangi Bhaijaan, made in times of the Gurdaspur and Udhampur attacks and high tension on the border, has demonstrated the power of civil societies. What’s important is not that Bajrangi Bhaijaan has been made, what’s noteworthy is how readily massive urban Indian audiences are thrilling to its message of friendship with Pakistan.

‘Everyone wants to show stories of hate, because hate sells, and love doesn’t’ – that isn’t the forlorn voice of a peacenik participant at a candle light vigil at Wagah but Nawazuddin Siddiqui playing the role of Pakistani journalist Chand Nawab in Bajrangi Bhaijaan. Desperately trying to hawk his scoop – of the proud Hindi belt Brahmin and Bajrangbali devotee, Pawan Kumar Chaturvedi (Salman Khan in a rather un-Salman like role), the archetypal simpleton with the heart of gold who makes it his life’s mission to help a little lost Pakistani girl find her parents – to uncaring news channels, Nawaz realises that the news cycle has very little space for an Indo-Pak feel good story.

News channels cannot believe that a good hearted Indian is trying to help the Pakistani child reach her village. Instead they believe the police version that Bajrangi must be an Indian ‘jasoos’ (spy) who has illegally sneaked into Pakistan. These channels want more familiar images of terror and violence. In a week when Indo-Pak diplomacy has degenerated into familiar finger-pointing, the ‘Bajrangi Bhaijaan moment’ reminds that cinema and popular culture have almost managed to achieve what, frankly, our political class has failed to: Bridge the Indo-Pak divide.

The Hindi film industry has always had an interesting tryst with life across the Indus. The film Veer-Zaara showed how love surmounts borders. The other hit formula has been to portray the Pakistani as the permanent ‘enemy’ as in blockbusters like Border and Gadar. Veer-Zaara was released in November 2004 at a time when the two countries were looking to repair relations. Gadar, on the other hand, was released in 2001 against the backdrop of terror attacks and a potential conflict. In that sense, these films mirrored dominant national anxieties rather than offer a counternarrative.

Where Bajrangi Bhaijaan scores is that its success comes at a time when hyper nationalism seems to be the dominant narrative. A Hindu nationalist government presides over expressions of muscular patriotism. There is an increased fragility to Hindu-Muslim equations, a renewal of cross-border hostilities and terror attacks: The environment seems suited for war-mongering, not peace. In times when a powerful section of the media too seems to relish pitting Indian against Pakistani on prime time, that a mainstream (not artsy) Bollywood film succeeds so resoundingly in challenging the prevailing discourse is quite remarkable.

Salman Khan’s character Pawan Kumar Chaturvedi or Bajrangi is almost a caricature of the upper caste Hindu North Indian male. His father is an RSS supporter, he is strictly vegetarian and lives in a patriarchal setup where the Muslim is the perpetual ‘outsider’. As audiences laughed aloud at Bajrangi’s prejudices, it seemed as if we are hearteningly self-reflexive and self-aware of the times we live in, and ready to laugh at a parody of ourselves. That a saffron-clad devotee of Bajrangbali becomes an emissary of peace to Pakistan may make Mani Shankar Aiyar squirm, but is the genius of the movie.

Maybe the peace lobby has boxed itself into a corner by refusing to accept the perfidy of the ‘deep state’ in Pakistan. Yet the ‘soft power’ of mass entertainment can sometimes do what Track II diplomacy cannot: Strengthen and embolden the large silent constituency that exists for more people to people contact. Indeed, cinema and cricket in particular have at various times shown the capacity to challenge those who seek permanent conflict. Who can forget the Pakistani cricket team being cheered in Chennai in 1999 after defeating India in a riveting test match? Or a stadium in Lahore reverberating to ‘Balaji zara dheere chalo’ during the 2004 series?

The audiences which cheered Bajrangi Bhaijaan are surely touched by the simple message of a once single country slashed in two by barbed wire. The Pakistani who held up a poster at a cricket match during the 1996 World Cup, declaring ‘Madhuri de do, Kashmir le lo’ shows that under the political posturing, many are desperate to unshackle themselves from the tyranny of the past.

It might be romantic to suggest that a film achieves what our diplomats and politics cannot: An AK 47 after all is a grim reality which can hardly be countered by an escapist fable on celluloid. Also, filmi diplomacy has its limits as Pakistan’s ban on Phantom, ironically made by the same director, shows. But in creating a peace constituency, elitist Track II dialogues must recognise that esoteric prescriptions don’t go very far. The peace constituency can become vocal and self-confident not only thr- ough hard economic ties but also through mainstream cultural connectedness. Does the public really care if Ajit Doval talks to Sartaj Aziz or not? Bajrangi Bhaijaan builds far greater awareness on the need for a shared resolve against terrorism.

Sagarika Ghose is consulting editor, The Times of India. A former television anchor and deputy editor of CNN-IBN, she is the author of two novels, “The Gin Drinkers” and “Blind Faith” both published by HarperCollins.

– Published in TOI Blogs, Aug 25, 2015

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