A dominant trend in Indian cinema has seen realistic movies gaining in popularity in the past decade or so. The trend brings with it an increasing inclination to present some parts of India in poor light. Though such formulas have succeeded at the box office and have also found favour with critics, the representation depicts only half the picture. Let us take a look at what Gangs of Wasseypur has missed.
Gangs of Wasseypur is the latest representation in Bollywood of undivided Bihar when the state was home to an entire coal belt. The movie deals with the conflict between gangs vying for hegemony over the coal belt. It has been widely acclaimed by critics as well as ordinary movie buffs. Dialogues are steeped in colloquial invectives which appeal to the lesser senses. Without doubt, the movie is good when it comes to direction, cinematography and a lot more that mean little to the average moviegoer. The point is: it is good to watch. But it raises a fundamental question: why should Bihar, or for that matter Uttar Pradesh (UP), be presented in a light of lawlessness, goondaism, and moral debauchery which may qualify them to be called the underbelly of India? Well, for that matter, Mumbai too could qualify for the same description. For now, let’s talk of these two states _ Bihar and UP.
Another movie of the same genre, Apaharan too should be mentioned in this context on account of its ‘recentness’. But there is a whole gamut of such movies that, in the name of realism in Indian cinema, present these states in more or less the same poor light. Are these movies, realistic as they claim to be, true to reality?
The narrative of lawlessness depicted in the film through gangs and bloody turf wars is actually part of a larger discourse, something that the film misses. The political landscape of these two states is assigned to a corner in Gangs of Wasseypur, and the movie misses out on the larger matrix of the society and politics it tries to represent. Caste or groups are presented as natural enemies and thus locked in a stereotyped turf war. But the larger picture of these groups, as they see themselves, is missing. Butchers versus Pathans, Hindus versus Muslims; the movie moves in a set of binaries. But any social scientist or a journalist worth his salt can tell that this is only a simplistic mis-representation or at best a partial representation. The reality is much more nuanced. Why does a butcher nurture a particular self-image? The same question begs to be answered for all the other social categories depicted in the film.
Also, the political narrative of the two states is not just dictated by caste or religion-based gangs but also with political processes that run much deeper. Both Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have been the seats of socio-political revolutions. Bihar has been the seat of the rise of OBCs (Other Backward Castes) to power. More than gangs, Karpoori Thakur, the first OBC Chief Minister of Bihar, defines Bihar. UP is another state which saw the rise of a powerful Dalit discourse outside Maharashtra and South India (sans the Leftist discourse of egalitarianism). UP also followed the ‘Bihari’ path to political mobilisation when an OBC leader, Charan Singh, became the first OBC Prime Minister of India. The political processes that had their roots in UP and Bihar also made Jagjivan Ram, a Dalit, the first Deputy Prime Minister of India.
Coming back to gangs and lawlessness, they were a part of this political process. Caste and religious groups had been fired with the zeal to capture political power – at all levels of politics, and the scramble became bloody and more acute. But then, why an obsession with just one-half of the reality? Realism of this partial kind is not realism at all; it is then an ‘interested’ representation. But what is this interest? That violence sells, that realism of the criminal kind is appreciated at Cannes because such movies conform to the backward image of the Indian heartland? Or is it just a bid to show the underbelly, to arouse indignation among the political masters of India and thus serve a social cause?