Sunday, March 22, 2009

GULAAL (Hindi; 2009)

Gulaal begins in the middle of a fiery speech by Duki Bana (Kay Kay Menon), burning with anger over the injustices meted out to Rajputs in independent India, and convinced now is the time to take "Rajputana" back from India. The speech is convincing, cinematic testimony to the heady (and combustible) political cocktail made by resentment, history as active myth-making, and violence, but -- and this is the greater achievement -- it is profoundly disorienting. Rajputs are, after all, at the very core of "Indianness" (to the extent one is inclined to accord any community that distinction), whether one is thinking of the right-wing ideologue in search of Hindu defenders against Islamic invaders; or of the foreign tourist for whom Rajasthan's royal heritage is the ne plus ultra of Indian tradition. Director Anurag Kashyap's inversion, making a traitor out of that which conventional nationalism deems above reproach, is a daring act of political subversion, a sign that there is little essential or immutable in politics: given the right conditions, and the requisite degree of violence, even the unimaginable can seem inevitable. And so it is in Gulaal, where slowly but surely the viewer begins to get used to Duki's ideas; by the time the film re-visits the speech halfway through the film, one is no longer surprised and shocked. One simply accepts.

And there's more: by making the very cultural symbols of the Indian mainstream (that is to say, those symbols used by culture warriors as among the embodiments of Indian heritage and nobility) opposed to the Indian state, and, quite explicitly, to the idea of both democracy and India, Kashyap points a finger at his audience too. The real traitors, willing to sacrifice democracy and freedom at this or that violent altar; willing to follow charismatic pipers wherever they might lead; are us.

Gulaal is a political fable, and like the best of them, constructs a world that at once seems like a grotesque distortion of the world we live in, and a perfectly plausible representation of it. The story revolves around Dilip Singh (Raja Chaudhry), a newly arrived student at an unnamed university somewhere in Rajasthan; his roommate is dissolute aristocrat Ransa (Abhimanyu Singh), and his first day at the university a brutal round of ragging, by the end of which Dilip is stripped and locked up in a dark room with a naked and traumatized Anuja (Jesse Randhawa), a newly arrived teacher who has had her own hellish introduction to campus life. Sure enough, the meek Dilip gravitates toward Ransa's thuggery and Duki's protection: the latter wants Ransa and Dilip to spearhead his Rajputana party's efforts to take control of the campus; Dilip is too weak to resist, and Ransa seems intrigued by the idea. You can see the nastiness coming from a mile away, and Kashyap does not disappoint, throwing in a memorable cast of characters that includes Ransa's half-siblings Kiran (Ayesha Mohan) and Karan (Aditya Shrivastav), the out of wedlock offspring of Ransa's royal father; a Shakespearean fool in Duki's brother Prithvi (Piyush Mishra, who also wrote the lyrics and composed the music); Duki's long-suffering wife (Jyoti Dogra); and a neurotic, luscious dancing girl in Madhuri (Mahi Gill). No purity of purpose or character is possible in the dark world of this film, suffused as it is with spite, cruelty, and duplicity; Gulaal is Kashyap's most compelling work since Black Friday, and while it cannot be called a pleasant viewing experience, it is never anything but compelling, the sort of wake-up call we desperately need (and one not reducible to the sentiment that all politics essentially the same, that ideology is a combination of naivete and charlatanry; the sort of facile cynicism peddled by films like Satta or Hu Tu Tu).

Gulaal isn't perfect: like more than one Kashyap film, its coherence leaves something to be desired; in particular Kashyap dilutes his political focus by making too much of the film's second half "about" Dilip's betrayal by his lover Kiran, who in turn is suddenly transformed into a cold-hearted bitch, a characterization that simply does not follow from what she has been earlier in the film. Moreover, the dissonance, and reflexive resort to sexist stereotype (of the woman who uses her sexuality toward political ends), is particularly irritating in a film that has hitherto been sensitive to the connections between politics, patriarchal violence, and sexuality: near the film's beginning, Dilip is humiliated by being stripped (his tormentor later jokes that Dilip was so chikna he wanted to kiss him), but in the same situation, Anuja is almost preternaturally self-possessed. She is not seduced by the protection of the patriarchy as Dilip does; nor does she need a powerful man to protect her. Indeed her strength (turning the traditional gender stereotype on its head) seems to unnerve those around her -- and perhaps even herself, inasmuch as it might be read as bordering on the inhuman ("It isn't so bad to be a coward," she murmurs to Dilip in one scene). The contrast with so many other films, that insist on the finality of the sort of violence Anuja is subjected to, is stark. But equally notable is Kashyap's failure to pursue this suggestive story arc; in the film's second half the director prefers to spend more time with the relatively conventional figures of Kiran and Madhuri, all of it leading up to a rather weak denouement for Dilip's story.

The cast is almost uniformly good: Kay Kay yet again confirms the impression that he is never so compelling as when he plays a nasty character, although no-one steals the show from the wickedly enjoyable Abhimanyu Singh when he is on-screen. Mahi Gill underscores that Dev D was no fluke, and the sleek Jesse Randhawa surprises with her charisma. The camera, it must be said, loves her. A special mention must be made of Jyoti Dogra, who takes the hackneyed role of Duki's wife and imbues it with a spirited edge. Less impressive is Ayesha Mohan, but the fault here might well lie in a poorly written character. Aditya Shrivastav and Deepak Dobriyal (as Duki's man Friday Bhaati) don't have all that much to do, but keep up their end of the bargain. The weak link, alas, is Raja Chaudhry, whose Dilip is simply inert. There is also the small matter of Piyush Mishra, whose contribution is stamped on just about every facet of this film: as actor, his red-uniformed mad poet Prithvi has some of the film's most memorable lines; as composer, Mishra's music blends seamlessly with the film -- it is hard to think of it as existing independently (a compliment in my book); as lyricist, Mishra delights in the Hindi language (especially in the "Aaramb hai" anthem, at once rousing and disturbing), and certainly doesn't lack a playful edge -- as demonstrated in the "Ranaji" song with its references to aeroplanes ghuso-fying in towers and poor Afghanistan, jis ka "baj gayo band". Ultimately, as the "Duniya" song that closes the film makes clear, Mishra channels the revolutionary Urdu poetry of Sahir Ludhianvi, and also Majaaz Lakhnavi, Faiz, and others (perhaps including, obliquely, Yeats' The Second Coming), to drive home the reality that in our times, revolutionary fervor is a hallmark not of the "progressives" but of their reactionary counterparts. The film ends as it has begun.

Despite its flaws, and even apart from the wonderful atmosphere art director Wasiq Khan and cinematographer Rajeev Ravi have helped create,Gulaal is miles better than most other "political" films Bollywood produces: rather than pandering to the audience's prejudices, it insinuates itself into the viewer's imagination, only to unsettle -- serving as a reminder, if any were needed, that Kashyap remains one of the most fearless contemporary Hindi film directors, and also (and this is both good and bad) that age and relative fame have not dulled Kashyap's desire to be remembered as Bollywood's enfant terrible. No matter. One can forgive the publicity mongering trailers liberally peppered with bleeped out (and clearly recognizable) four-letter words: both the film industry and we could do with some shock jockery -- especially in an election year.


Conrad Barwa said...

Rajputs are, after all, at the very core of "Indianness" (to the extent one is inclined to accord any community that distinction)

Are they? I find this a bold assertion that isn't necessarily borne out by the facts. Kshatriyas as a group maybe could be said to play this role (even that is debatable), Rajputs much less so since it would depend on a highly specific construction of Indianness. As a community they don't even have a real presence outside the northern states and are absent in the South and east to a large degree - which both have other communtieis that have appropriated this role. Even in states like MP, they have a strong but ambigious relationship with adivasi communities; a relationship that goes back centuries but which certainly doesn't see the latter defining themselves in therm of the former as far as national identitiy goes. Even historically I would distinguish 'Rajput' culture from what I would call 'Naukar military' culture which really was dominant in northern India from the late mideveal period till the onset of colonialism; as can be seen in the very popular demotic ballads like the "Song of Gopi Chand". Certain modern versions of Indian nationalism and national identity incorporate this but very selectively, as the 'Rajput' ethos is not well understood outside the region. Even non-Gandhian sources of Indian nationalism; which did not adopt non-violence, in my view were more infleunced by other aesthetic and cultural models; thinking of Aurobindo, Savarkar, PEriyar and Ambedkar here.

However, I haven't seen the film and so can't comment further on it yet. Will look forward to getting a copy and being able to add my thoughts - such as they are.

Conrad Barwa said...

to drive home the reality that in our times, revolutionary fervor is a hallmark not of the "progressives" but of their reactionary counterparts.

BTW, just wanted to say I loved this Yeatsian comment on this aspect of our contemporary social scene. Sadly, all too true, all too often.

Qalandar said...

Conrad: I didn't mean that they were in fact at the core of "Indianness" (I am not inclined to grant any group primacy over any other in that respect), but that that is how they are presented by the sort of political discourse that has gained ground in the polity over the last few decades. That is, I am referring here to the political uses, acceptability of, and cultural "glamor" associated with, the figure of the Rajput -- and do not at all mean to suggest that this ought to be accepted uncritically as a descriptive matter.

Conrad Barwa said...

Thanks for clearing that up Q, it is waht I suspected but wasn't sure. The reason why I find the premise of Gulaal problematic is that I think it is hard to match with a post-Mandal political landscape. The political imaginary has been transformed for most Indians now, especially the non-English speaking elite. The Rajput ethos while admired and copied for some of its desirable traits could never serve as a rallying cry, given its strong identification of with a specific Rajput caste. The social basis is so weak as Rajputs are even in the majority in Rajasthan (I think the 1931 census put them at 24% of the population as an estimate); the vast majority of their subjjects; even many of their soldiers were non-Rajputs or upwardly mobile classes that were prmoised some sort of lesser Rajput status. these days social groups like Kurmis or Yadavs wouldn't who have the same dominance in parts of the coutnryside wouldn't need to assert such Rajput claims for their acendance and any appeal to Rajput identity would have a hugely limited attraction for the vast majority of the population who are non-Rajput.

Outside the Hindu nationalist stream; this is why such appeals are muted, except for when they are clearly shown as a historical legacy that can be shared by all Hindus, but crucially not dependent on any direct genealogical link with the Rajputs of today.

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Shetty said...

Where is your review on Anjathey & Subramaniapuram Q bhai? Don't tell me that you have not watched yet.

Qalandar said...

Saw Subramaniapuram shettybhai, but not anjaathey. Have been having some trouble finding a subtitled copy of it...

DK said...

I agree - the women characters are very problematic, and I find the fiesty yet needy gangster's woman type in many recent films very tiresome. But the Kiran and Anuja characters were also incoherent. I can't help feeling that it seems to be enough for the new women characters to simply shock through their unconventionality. It doesn't really have to be seriously explained!

The best thing about the film for me was the end of the film took apart the notion of Rajputness much in the way a lot of contemporary scholarship has done - shown it to be an aspirational category, something that was claimed and achieved through resourceful political and military activity and success, and to that end, was ideally "pure" and "kshatriya" but was in practice open and always unstable. Several characters also sarcastically add the 'asli' every time they mention being Rajput.

The film is meant to be seen through the jester, yes? I read him as being the conscience of the film, in a sense - the one who pits universalism against the narrow nativism of something like Rajputana, who critiques the new world order. But while the hollowness of Duki bana's project is clear, the alternative is also trapped - literally in the house, and figuratively. The b/w flashbacks, that frantic search for the Rajputana map - is it a more benevolent vision that is now undesirable merely because it descends into violence? Couldn't square it with Lennon. But I have to listen to the songs and recitation more carefully - like in that sequence right after the gulaal speech, the speed with which everything happens it's not easy to get the subtleties of the poetry right there.

Anonymous said...

Superior analysis. Definitely, one of the best reviews I have read.

I have taken liberty to add your review link in my blog


Manan Ahmed said...

Finally saw it and came to give my report. I think you capture, nicely, most of the salient points. The most poignant moment - and I think, one that hints at Kashyap's underlining critique of Rajputana - is when the police officer is about to get shot. "One last request", he says, "Wardi utarnay dein. Yeh wardi mujhay bohat aziz hai" or something like that. That plea to take his uniform off - a rejected plea - focused brilliantly on what it means to be "Indian" even in Rajput land.

Besides the conflicting messages in the coverage of gender you raise, as well as DK, I want to add that even the centrality of Rajputana fails to be articulated outside of Duki Baba's personalized obsession. What was the obsession of Kiran and Karan but political power, writ large.

Anyways, the cinematography, lyrics and some dialogue was pure genius. Will check out Dev D.

Anonymous said...

Who told you that Kshatriya and Rajput are two different things? Rajputs - Rajaputra are the ORIGINAL KSHATRIYA.

And who are these "non-rajput" soldiers in rajput armies?? can you even muster up 10 such leaders??

I think your commens "Barwa" are assinine at best.

Avni said...

I disagree with your basic reading of the film - Gulaal does much more than simply expose the hollowness of 'Rajputana' or any analogous political agenda from Indian history. I find that the film uses 'politics' merely as a ruse to delve into something much deeper - patriarchy. Just like a Shakespearian or Jacobean tragedy, you are not supposed to read the characters or events literally. The song Ranaji for example is not simply a snarky dig at America as you suggest, but really Prithvi Bana is calling his brother a fascist and a patriarch. The androgyny and sexual ambiguity going on between Prithvi Bana and his musical companion who was killed by Dukke is another strong indicator of Gulaal's lashing out against patriarchy. I find Kashyap's use of women very interesting, and while he doesn't explain them or develop them as you would have liked, they're everywhere you look in the film. Leaving Kiran both conventional in her use of sexuality but also opaque as we can never guess her at her real thoughts or loyalties is an intelligent move by Kashyap. Like with many of Shakespeare's dark horeses/villains (I'm thinking Lady Macbeth, Shylock, etc.) her power lies in her inexplicability. And thats where Kashyap excels - Kiran's silence, Pritvhi's poetry, the painted co-conspirator's strangeness. They're all acts of defiance against a patriarchal order that plays out superficially in the realm of politics, or at the level of family (as witnessed in the relationship b/w the king's legit and illegit children), sexuality, male-female relationships, but most poignantly (to me anyway) in the power structure of normal v/s oddities (i.e. Prithvi and his friend).