In Praise of Escapism

Google doodle for Nargis’s 86th birthday.

Google doodle for Nargis’s 86th birthday.

An edited version of this was published the Mumbai edition of today’s Hindustan Times.

One of the more worrying fallouts of the Indian general elections drawing to a close has been the release of director Omung Kumar’s alleged film, PM Narendra Modi. Aside from showing how generous the Prime Minister is to let something as dreary as this ‘biopic’ benefit from associating with his name, PM Narendra Modi is proof that we’re going through a crisis of imagination.

The film, directed by Omung Kumar and written by four people (including actor Vivek Oberoi), has enjoyed an incredible Rs 5-crore opening. To put this in perspective, Golmaal – bulked up by the star power of actors Ajay Devgn, Paresh Rawal and Arshad Warsi as well as director Rohit Shetty – made a little more than Rs 2 crore on its opening day. PM Narendra Modi has Oberoi, who decided to draw on tasteless memes and actor Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s fame to re-enter the public imagination. Just the fact that he is in the film should guarantee PM Narendra Modi’s failure. Instead, it’s sitting pretty at the box office and people are posting reviews that declare Oberoi is “grate”. Perhaps more astounding than the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) winning 303 Lok Sabha seats is the fact that Vivek Oberoi fans have been unearthed in 2019. Truly, our Prime Minister is a miracle worker.

The jury is out on what is more tortuous to a liberal – watching PM Narendra Modi or staring at the Election Commission of India’s static webpage showing the final tally of election results. Every critic has bemoaned how Kumar has made a terrible film as though this is a bad thing. Personally, I’m very glad that PM Narendra Modi is awful – by which I mean the film; they really should have thought that title through a bit more – because this awfulness restricts the film’s audience to hardcore BJP and Modi fans. Admittedly, that is an audience of a few million (and gods know how many crores earned at the box office), but I bring you a silver lining of sorts: This is not a film that’s likely to convert anyone into a fan of the PM.  

In my nightmares, PM Narendra Modi is a cleverly-written, sharply-directed, edge-of-the-seat entertainer that shows our Prime Minister living a life of mystery and adventure. Think James Bond, but with a beard, wearing a sleeveless jacket over a kurta, flaunting an ever-upright flagpole and without women to distract him from the task of propaganda, sorry, nation-building. Because a well-made film about a man who became a hero by tapping into the insecurities and aspirations of contemporary India could be the perfect cocktail of escapism and reality, which is the recipe that has made our kitschy pop culture such an international favourite. For better or for worse, PM Narendra Modi is not that film.

Unless the four writers credited with writing PM Narendra Modi intended to depict the Prime Minister as a cartoon, the earnest and smug awesomeness of the lead in Kumar’s film is glaring evidence that the struggle is real for Bollywood writers. You’d think patriarchy would at the very least be able to create an impressive alpha male, but no. It seems creating a charismatic hero is beyond their capabilities. (Maybe the writers were hamstrung by the problem of needing to incorporate certain fictional elements, like claiming the 2002 Gujarat riots were contained in 24 hours by the chief minister Modi’s virile disaster management when actually, the riots raged for three days because, to quote the Supreme Court, “the modern day ‘Neros’ were looking elsewhere”).

Next to PM Narendra Modi, most films would look accomplished, but the uncomfortable truth is that Kumar’s film isn’t a standout. If anything, it’s a neat package of everything that is wrong with mainstream entertainment in India today. While other films try to distract the viewer from their lack of imagination and inept storytelling, PM Narendra Modi showcases it. The film is further burdened by forgettable music and regrettable acting. Once again, I’m thankful for this. The last thing I needed was for the soundtrack of PM Narendra Modi to have a hummable little gem like “Mere desh ki dharti” because then, no matter what we thought of the whole project, that song would be on our lips.

I have to admit, it’s a little depressing to see how Indian popular cinema’s storytelling skills and musical talents have devolved over the years. Traditionally, our commercial cinema is good at being inane, inoffensive and inspirational all at the same time. After all, there was a time when both autocratic governments and the public they kept under their thumbs were fans of popular Hindi cinema.

Take, for example, the popularity that commercial Hindi cinema enjoyed in the erstwhile Soviet Union. The Cold War with the United States of America meant that the Soviet government treated Hollywood films with suspicion and censorship. (Of course, it’s hilarious to think that Hollywood – with its draconian studio system, formulaic plots and glass ceilings – could represent freedom, but it did in the past and continues to do so to some extent. That’s a PR campaign whose success rivals that of our Prime Minister.) To satisfy the cravings of the ungrateful masses who wanted more than propaganda as entertainment, the Soviet government opted for capitalism lite, aka commercial Hindi films from India. In this cultural exchange, we got translations of Pushkin, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky while the Soviets got Awaara and Seeta Aur Geeta. A fair deal, if there ever was one.

The charm of these movies was that they spun gossamer fantasies of pretty escapism, but didn’t topple the Left-leaning applecart. In them, the rich were bad while the poor were good, and everyone ended up with enough money to live happily ever after so that film producers made profits. Life rarely worked out the way plots did in these films, but there was something relatable about the characters and the films’ charm lay in their impossibility.

This is why souvenir sellers in Turkey have for decades excitedly yelled “Amitabh Bachchan!” and “Shah Rukh Khan!” at the sight of a south Asian, and people in places like China, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan can still break into “Awaara hoon” at the drop of a dumpling. In Nigeria, our bad Hindi films have inspired an entire generation of local filmmakers and helped birth a genre of fabulously melodramatic writing known as littattafan soyayya (or “love literature”) that privileges the experiences and emotions of women. Audiences in places as far-flung as Peru, Poland and Japan have all sipped the Technicolor kool-aid of popular Hindi (and in some places, Tamil) cinema while discontent riddled their real lives. Films that seemed to have only the most tangential connect with reality managed to resonate with people all over the world. All because they were fun and had wonderful soundtracks.  

Not that I have any scientific evidence to back this claim – which, given the kind of statements politicians make in present-day India, should only strengthen its credibility – but good escapist entertainment is essential for a healthy imagination and a functioning polity. When the reality around you is dystopic, you need fantasies to keep you sane. Done right, escapist fantasies, like romantic comedies and superhero movies, are reminders of how the world should be. They present a parallel reality where there is beauty all around you, systems are benign instead of oppressive, and happiness is a given. They offer refuge.

It’s not as though there are no examples in contemporary popular Indian cinema of well-executed fantasies, but they’re too few and practically all of them end up being dissatisfying. The Baahubali films, for example, were a fantastic blend of kitsch with charisma in the first part, but ended up being a paean to Kshatriyas hopped up on testosterone. At the other end of the spectrum was the modesty of Dum Laga Ke Haisha, which did a wonderful job of recreating the simple world of 1990s, small-town India, but just couldn’t give the love story the crackle of chemistry and longing that it needed. More often than not, we’re given hastily-drawn characters, half-baked plots and a few flashes of abs and other muscle groups by way of distraction. Particularly when it comes to Hindi commercial cinema, the golden age of escapist fun feels like it’s behind us.

A lot of the charm of the vintage Bollywood lies in its soundtracks. The Indian film industries are unique for the phenomena of playback singing, which may have made acting significantly easier for the on-screen talent that doesn’t have to belt out tunes the way actors in musicals do elsewhere but it also meant we heard singers like Mohammad Rafi, Mukesh, Talat Mahmood, Manna Dey, Geeta Dutt, Shamshad Begum, Asha Bhonsle and Lata Mangeshkar. (I’m not including Kishore Kumar in the list because he was also an actor who sang for himself as well as others.) The world would be a far more miserable place without the hundreds of compositions that these playback singers transformed into magical shards of melody. I can’t think of one contemporary singer holds a candle to those greats. When you watch Madhubala listening to “Zindagi bhar nahin bhulegi woh barsaat ki raat”, you’re transported to a simpler, sweeter time. It doesn’t matter that those situations probable never actually existed. In that grainy, black and white frame, it is eternally real and someone with Rafi’s glorious voice is serenading you.

Commercial cinema has rarely been about technical accomplishments. For the longest time, we had the worst special effects and good cinematography was rare. Films often jumped — sometimes literally — from scene to scene because of careless editing. The stories regularly employed shortcuts and clichés. Despite all these flaws, what the stories in those films had was an imagination. There’s nothing normal about the mind that came up with the idea of flames of two lamps float across the ether so that they can enter a blind woman’s eyes. Fiat lux indeed. Good commercial cinema promises a payoff for suspending disbelief and ignoring all the little things that are tacky — hope and escape. For the duration of the film, you’re in a happy place. It could be the fantasy that Blenheim Palace is an Indian family’s home (it seems a lot less far-fetched after millionaire Laxmi Mittal rented Versailles for his daughter Vanisha’s engagement) or that the man of your dreams is standing in the middle of a mustard field (which only seems a more realisable goal because really, best of luck finding a real-life version of Raj). As Amol Palekar cons Utpal Dutt in the Gol Maal with a fake moustache or Dharmendra puts on a monkey cap in Chupke Chupke, the grim anxieties of middle-class existence fade away and instead, you giggle at the mischief that characterised life as Hrishikesh Mukherjee imagined it and those adorable loons become a part of your imagined family.

While it is essential we have cultural practitioners who hold up a mirror to society, it’s equally important to have stories that let you escape it — especially when the reality is PM Narendra Modi. You’re not going to be able to change things for the better if all you have before you is the crushing certainty that everything is getting worse.

The fact is, it isn’t hard to write a bad plot or story. What is far more challenging is writing a good, engaging but trashy plot that will comfort a viewer and restore their spirit. It requires the writer to come up with characters who feel relatable and fantasies that feel personal even though they’re a collection of clichés. Here’s what not enough people tell you — writing good pop fiction is also incredibly fun. You can just dive into it and throw all inhibitions out the window. There’s no expectation that it be good and that in itself makes the process of writing feel immersive. You write what you want to feel, realise into words the half-formed fantasy that was lurking in your daydreams, and stick your tongue out at things like structure and style. You can come back to all that if you want to. Or you could just ignore it because hello! who cares as long as the fantasies are in place? It’s all just incredibly liberating.

I say all this with some degree of authority because one night during this wretched election period, when I trawled various websites looking for escapist fun starring brown people and got offered nonsense like Arjun Reddy (dude’s cute, but ZOMG what misogynist crap is that ‘love’ story), I abandoned the book I thought I wanted to write and sat down to churn out the easy, breezy romance that I was hankering for and no one was giving me. What I have in my computer now is the exact opposite of high art and great literature, but every time I sit down to write, I have a grin on my face that makes the Cheshire Cat’s toothy beam seem like a smirk. I don’t understand why no pop author has let us on to the secret that writing trash is good for the writer’s soul. (The fact that all other writing, from the other book to the newsletter, has fallen by the wayside is a minor side effect. Sigh.)

On most days, I spend the better part of my day immersed in reality that ranges from pleasant to horrifying. Leaving aside the trials and tribulations of personal life, news and current affairs are essentially catalogues of miseries — crimes committed, lives lost, hopes dashed, justice denied… the list goes on. Take, for example, yesterday, when our timelines were filled with images of children jumping to their deaths in Surat to avoid the fire that broke out in a coaching centre (an illegal construction with no proper fire escape). Suman Padihari may not sound familiar to you, but she’s haunted me since I edited an article in which it was reported that her husband repeatedly slammed her head against a wall, fractured her skull and killed her after she fought with him over his spending money on alcohol. She’d been running a fever for days and her husband had told her they didn’t have money for medicines. When he realised he’d killed her, Suman’s husband sat beside her dead body for two days and then tried to kill himself when the body started decomposing. The police broke into the Padiharis’ home after neighbours complained of a smell and found Suman’s body with her husband lying next to her, in a pool of blood. He’s fine now, FYI, and has been charged with murder. Earlier on Saturday, a video had been going around in which two men and a woman were beaten because their attackers suspected they were carrying beef. The men who beat them can be heard shouting “Jai Shri Ram”. Hours later, before being appointed prime minister for a second term, Narendra Modi said minority communities have been living in “imaginary fear”, that the idea of them being under threat is a “deception” and that his government would embrace even those who had opposed him.

A film like PM Narendra Modi doesn’t offer me a way out of the labyrinth made of these images, deceptions and realities. But the growing pile of words in my computer, filled as they are with unlikely situations and unreal good cheer, is steadily turning from rubble into an archway that lets me go to a happy place. If the writers of commercial entertainment would just do their thing (instead of fretting about who will get upset by which imagined offence or some such nonsense), then I wouldn’t have to wait for myself to get round to tapping out that delicious happily-ever-after to a playlist of Mohammed Rafi, Natalie Prass, The National, Geeta Dutt, Prateek Kuhad and Vampire Weekend.

I’d go on about soft power, but right now, I need to return to my trashy romance. May your escape and Sunday be as satisfying as mine.