My husband’s aunts were visiting us. One is 72, the other 81. They like to watch Zee News every night after dinner. Ayodhya was on everyone’s minds. From politics, the conversation inevitably slipped to corruption. It is as if one no longer exists in our mind without the other. Talking of the Commonwealth Games, land acquisition, dirty deals, both women said, one after the other, “How much money does one need? How much does a human being really need to be happy? How do these people sleep at night?” And the conversation ended with, “Well, they will have to pay for it. There is no escaping the consequences of our actions.”
My husband and I come from different religious and social backgrounds and grew up in different states. But I have heard the same lines from my aunts, my elders. The values that were passed down were the same – don’t ever get a dishonest paisa into the house, be happy with whatever you have if it is earned honestly, you always pay for your sins, so it makes sense to be good.
In HS Rawail’s Pocketmaar’ (1956) Roshan’s mother (Lalita Pawar) feels compelled to kill herself when she learns that her son (Dev Anand) is a pickpocket, that his earnings which she has thanked God for daily, were dishonest. She blames herself for raising a dishonest son. Roshan before this has already realized the folly of his ways, when a desperate man kills himself after Roshan has picked his pocket. The film is weak on the plot at one or two places, but nowhere does it falter from the exposition of its moral premise.
While I did enjoy Dabangg, (Abhinav Kashyap, 2010) only for Salman Khan’s unbridled charm, I came away shocked at the complete lack of morality in the film. It is not as if I don’t enjoy amoral tales. The Ocean films, for instance, are con films, and one does not ask for a moral code in them. Why then does ‘Dabbang’ disturb? Is it because it is on home ground, depicting police corruption on the level that is frightening? Or making a swashbuckling hero of the corrupt police officer? I am confused about why I am offended. But I am. I am upset that there is not a single token character, not the mother, not the father, not a friend, not the lover, not the journalist brother, no one at all, who is concerned about the corruption and the misuse of power by the ‘hero’. All they are concerned about is who gets the upper hand.
Perhaps because the film is made in the mode of a masala film, one expects it also to abide by the masala code of honor, the triumph of good over evil, right over wrong. But here there is no right, only wrong. Chulbul Pandey (Salman Khan) calls himself Robin Hood, but he does nothing with the money he loots, except put it in the tijori of his mother’s cupboard. His mother (Dimple Khanna) reprimands his brother for robbing his brother’s money, but not Chulbul himself for acquiring the money by illegal means. Chulbul is not good even in comparison to the villain, Cheddi Singh. The fight between them is not a fight between the good and the bad, but just on who can be badder better.
That is why I was tempted to like Badmaash Company. There was some sense of retribution, a father (Anupam Kher) who disagreed with his son’s chasing easy money, who can predict trouble ahead for the young man if he uses his mind for dishonest means. Badmaash Company failed because it spent too much time in explaining the cons which were stupid anyway. A lot of screen time was taken up by useless, flashy shots of the friends walking, hip-hopping, having fun, and all of that. But the parts that worked for me were the scenes with the emotional and moral dilemmas. But these are few and far between. The mother here is totally ineffective, listening mutely to her husband’s righteous anger and her son’s defensive arguments. She does not condone Karan’s (Shahid Kapoor) easy money policy, but she is not repelled by the gifts he brings home.
A friend argues that in politics, it is not only what one does but also the text which one holds up, that is important. I agree. Films are one of the texts of our socio-political existence. As such, they are not inconsequential. Do I come away from Dabangg only with the image of Salman Khan’s shirt tearing of its own with his rage, his smile and his screen presence? Or do I come back also with a sense of despair at the corruption in our society?
Most of the elders we asked about Dabangg gave a wry smile, a confused smile, as if to say, “Yes, we know it’s a hit, and yes, we know all of you liked Salman Khan in it, but was everything that happened in the film, all right? Do you condone it?”