On my recent trip to India, Chingaari (or at least posters for the same) was/were everywhere. And I mean everywhere. Like, to the tune of ten posters of Chingaari for every one of Rang de Basanti. Now, I haven't seen a Mithun film in a long time; and sure, I wasn't expecting a good film. But heck, the thought of Sushmita Sen and Mithun in the same film was intriguing, and I resolved to watch the movie. Yes kiddos, this is one of those cautionary tales...
The film is seriously bad (and not just because in one of the multiple tasteless bedroom scenes between Mithun and Sushmita, the incredibly stale Mithun, um, licks her as if there were no tomorrow).
More troublingly, the film presents a rather demonized representation of "the pundit" who holds an entire village in thrall because of his religious authority; "troublingly" because the films makes crystal clear that Mithun is being presented not just as a "bad guy", but as representative of a type. Fair enough-- except "Chingaari" gets the type all wrong, in that the priest here appears to be a kind of combination of a temple brahmin and an uber-thakur/feudal sort. I'm no expert on rural Bihar in decades past (the film appears to be a period piece, although that isn't entirely clear), but it appears the terms "Kshatriya", "Bhumihar", "Rajput" are unknown to the film's director Kalpana Lajmi, except insofar as she combines the worst stereotypes associated with these into the figure of the malevolent priest who uses religion to control a supine populace. That is: whatever happened to the thakur bad guy??? You can't just transmute the quintessential "feudal" zamindar into a priest (or: you can, and Lajmi has, but the result seems bizarre to anyone who isn't totally clueless about politics in the "Hindi heartland").
But there's more: unfortunately, Chingaari, like some other recent films -- Shakti is a case in point -- is incredibly offensive and patronizing when it comes to rural Indians. According to such films, villages are inhabited by alternately innocent and savage individuals, mostly lacking the power to think (though not to feel and to react strongly when pushed too far), and unremittingly oppressed by super-patriarchal figures (represented by mindless warriors in Shakti, and a mindlessly malevolent priest in Chingaari). The villagers can rebel -- but only when deliverance comes in the form of the educated urbanite, who arrives in the village free of such signs of backwardness such as sexism, communalism, casteism, what have you. [That there is typically less (e.g.) Hindu-Muslim violence in communally mixed villages on average than in India's cities should give these filmmakers pause, but they appear determined not to be confused by the facts]. In short, what ails rural Indians is precisely their tradition, from which they need to be liberated -- by urban Indians (or implicitly, "us"). So dehumanized are rural Indians in this representation (recognizing that the term "rural Indian" is itself highly problematic, given the mind-boggling diversity of community and circumstance it conceals) that they are little better than animals: they can and do respond to affection and stimulus, but are denied the agency their urban cousins are assumed to possess.
This sort of conception is hardly new; once upon a time it was the hallmark of Orientalist discourse; alas today urban Indians appear to reflexively indulge in the same.
What contributes to the farcical nature of the endeavor is how utterly divorced from reality all this is: virtually all "liberatory" movements in (for instance) UP and Bihar over the last few decades have emanated, not from urban India, but from grass-roots movements in the villages themselves. This is so whether or not we like what the movements have amounted to, or what we make of the politics of these movements; think Chipko and the revolution in forest management in the sub-Himalayan North (Himachal Pradesh and Uttaranchal); think the "lower-caste" revolutions in Eastern U.P. and Bihar, think the contemporary adivasi mobilizations (which, I suspect, will only get bigger and bigger as the years go by), heck perhaps even the adivasi anti-Narmada movement (not surprisingly, Arundhati Roy was its most recognizable face to English-speaking Indians, but the movement predated her, and the grass roots support it enjoyed among adivasi communities as well as others affected by the dam is independent of her). "We" cannot be instruments of anyone's liberation (even if one swallows -- which I am not willing to -- that that which oppresses is nothing other than tradition with a capital "T"); that films keep getting made to this effect show that the power of delusion and self-congratulation is alive and well.
Evidently, I'm not the only one who's upset...
That being said, the film appears to have failed in the multiplexes, so perhaps there's hope yet; according to Lajmi, single screens are faring much better (though she unsurprisingly does not mention the role her cynical use of the plight of prostitutes in a titillating manner might have played, or the fact that the gorgeous B-movie ishtyle posters might have misled single screen viewers into thinking they were about to watch a "typical" Mithun-flick), but she's upset about the film's reception on the whole. And her response is reeeeeal mature...(I do agree with her on two points: (1) the Susmita-Mithun scenes were crude (but complicit, and seemed intended to provoke something other than thought); and (2) Susmita was indeed too good for this garbage).