Dibakar Banerjee’s political drama Shanghai (2012) is set in a fictional town that symbolises the whole of India. The local government is colluding with corrupt businessmen to push through a controversial Special Economic Zone. An activist who protests against the land grab is killed, and a series of events forces an upright bureaucrat to confront the rot within the very system that has produced him. The movie includes the song “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”, which lampoons the state of the nation through its loaded lyrics (written by Banerjee) and questions the idea of economic development that fails to improve the conditions of those on the margins. Would Banerjee write such a song today, given the appropriation of the slogan by the Hindu right? Here is the filmmaker in his own words.
There were no problems with the censors for the song “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”, but there was a First Information Report filed by an obscure group. A police officer called my producer three or four times over a period of a few months and that was the end of it.
I got the lyrics from the context of the film. I was writing from the point of view of a political gunda who enjoys the fact that he is a gunda. He is going through the city in a procession, burning stuff, and he is untouchable – it is a good life. The song takes place just as Prosenjit’s character, Dr Ahmadi, is killed. Later on, this very gunda is killed by his own bosses because he becomes inconvenient.
It’s a satirical song about the way we are, and the way political parties function when they want to bully a certain agenda through. In this case, I was talking about getting a Special Economic Zone ruling bulldozed through.
Would I do it again? If I make a film about a subject like this, I definitely would, no question about it. It’s when the times are sensitive that you have to bring out the touchy issues.
The nationalism issue is a non-issue. Whenever a non-issue is raised, it is usually the non-crucial people, like the entertainers and the intelligentsia, that get involved. When the Film and Television Institute of India controversy came up, I was asked why Bollywood wasn’t standing up to the FTII. I replied that this wasn’t a Bollywood issue, it was about education.
When you take up a non-issue of whether you love or don’t love your country, it is very easy to delineate right and wrong. It is easy to Facebook and tweet about it. There is no one who doesn’t loves or “unlove” his or her country, the relationship is a far more nuanced one.
There is the deeper issue of marginal people being marginalised even more. The real issue is whether a law-abiding Muslim citizen finds it easy to get a job or a house in the city, is there a disproportionate number of Muslims in jail, is a disproportionate number of Muslims being profiled and surveyed as opposed to other communities. We need to worry about the threat to individual liberties.
The situation is far more complex and worrisome. People on the Left would like to blame the Bharatiya Janata Party for the current state, but the problem is far deeper than the BJP. I don’t think there is any one party now that can control the situation and put the genie back into the bottle. We will all have to pay for it one way or another. But you don’t stop talking about it. You keep raising your voice and make a calculation of how much personal risk you are ready to take.
This business of being “anti-national” is a common phenomenon. It happens in the life cycle of any society, especially one that is emerging from the past and is unsure of the kind of future it wants for itself. When you go for a neo-liberal capitalist model, some certainties of the past start breaking down. This creates a deep sense of insecurity, and you want to fall back on an imagined past.
There are spontaneous feelings among the people, one could say, but if you map the facts, it is clear that the spontaneity is not actually spontaneous, it is programmed and unleashed.
Two genies were let out of the bottle in the late 1980s – caste-based politics and the emergence of the Ram Janmabhoomi issue, which was used by the BJP as a stepping stone to build its electoral base. Everything important that has happened in India in the last 20 years has been the consequence of the demolition of the Babri Masjid and economic liberalisation. Imagine the Babri Masjid without economic liberalisation or economic liberalisation without the Babri Masjid – India would have been different today.
A large part of the Indian population has been programmed and educated in a normatively conservative school, which instantly looks with suspicion at anything that challenges the orthodoxy. Our educational and social systems and the machines that run them are programmed towards a conservative way of life. And that is why it will get worse before it gets better.
There is a hardlining of world politics that has nothing to do with India. It has to do with the detritus of history between the West and the Middle East. This has to play itself out. India has not been a part of this history, but has been a victim because it is an ex-colony. We could have opted out, but we didn’t.
(As told to Nandini Ramnath.)