Although I had seen both Chocolate and Goal, I never particularly cared to find out who had directed them. They were average films, displaying no trace of an auteur behind them, although they were enjoyable the way many Bollywood films are, but also, at the same time, completely and eminently forgettable. Both the films were set abroad, and had a mild nationalistic strain running through them which was also not very remarkable in that sense – Bollywood films shot abroad can rarely resist the temptation of a little flirtation with nationalism.
Buddha in a Traffic Jam, when seen in that context, is indeed a remarkable film as it purports to be a film of ideas, very glossily packaged – to be expected as Agnihotri cut his teeth in advertising.
For quite a while, I resisted the temptation to see it – I felt it would not be worth my time, from what I had gathered although I was intrigued by the trappings – especially the use of Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s poetry, because it seemed incongruous with the overall tone and theme of the film. Also, the controversy in Jadavpur University over the screening of the film whetted my curiosity further.
Having seen it, I can now say for sure that it is a shoddy film, the glossy packaging notwithstanding. However, many films are shoddy and BITJ is remarkable in yet another way – it is garbage with a sinister intent. In fact, I would like to argue that it is the manifesto/justification for a potential genocide or witch-hunt, at the very least.
To summarise quickly – (if you are worried about spoilers, read no further and don’t show your face to me again) – Vikram Pandit is an ex-Wall Street, ex-IIT cool dude now studying management at the Indian Institute of Business in Hyderabad. He is being mentored by a professor with socialist leanings who is in cahoots with the Maoists – the film establishes early-on how they are the real enemy destroying the country from within, shown in the most stereotypical and unflattering fashion throughout in the film. The professor turns against Pandit when he perceives the latter’s attempts to organise a world-wide auction for tribal artefacts as ‘politically motivated’.
The far-fetched and convoluted plot – it gets worse so skipping the full summary – is only a ruse. The chief aim of the filmmaker is to drive home a trite line peddled for the longest time by the police and security forces – that the Maoists are extortionists and they are provided with overt and covert support by the left-leaning intelligentsia and middle-classes, comprising NGO workers, academicians, journalists and even lawyers, as we have seen in Bastar recently.
Although utterly sinister, this line did not seep into public consciousness with real intensity before the present government came to power. Under its patronage, this shallow understanding of a very complex problem was legitimised at the highest levels which became clear when JNU, also termed as the Kremlin on the Yamuna sometimes, was targeted with a vengeance earlier this year and termed an ‘anti-national’ institute. (This line was expounded at length in a dossier released earlier this year)
‘Anti-national’ because all students and faculty are leftists who back Maoists, and want Kashmir to be given to Pakistan. (Full disclosure: I studied at JNU and the film’s lyricist who also helped with the music is Ravinder Randhawa, whom I know from my time at the university.)
But let us keep it to the Maoists here.
Speaking of the music, the wistful melodies based on ghazals by famous Urdu poets reminded one of another film which looked at the Maoist issue with some sympathy, Hazaron Kwahishen Aisi. But this is where the similarity ended.
Instead of sympathy, or even objectivity, BITJ revels in demonising the ideological Other and anyone who is not out to hunt them down – towards the end, the protagonist who must be the dumbest ever on screen, is freaked out after being told that Maoists and their sympathisers had infiltrated the middle-classes and intelligentsia and he needed to save his ass. He starts to hallucinate, imagining his friends and others as potential Maoists, crawling out of the woodwork to kill him, like zombies. This is the great insight of the filmmaker on the matter who is fond of spouting dictums from what he calls ‘Hindu philosophy’, on Twitter.
Such hatred-mongering against communists is not new in history. However, the intensity with which it is happening presently in India is new. (Just now, scrolling down my Twitter feed, I came across a tweet wishing India had a regime like that of Pinochet which bumped off Communists with great felicity).
Communists have been bumped off in India as well: in Assam, for example. The trade union movement in Maharashtra was suppressed brutally by Congress which used Shiv Sena for the purpose. Nevertheless, such nation-wide hatred was not seen before.
The Oscar-winning documentary Act of Killing was instructive in that sense: it looked closely, sometimes painfully, into the process in which the ideological Other is turned into a non-human, bereft of any dignity, fit to be killed like an insect. To be sure, even Communists have been guilty of doing this when they have been in power, including in Indian states. But right now, it is them who are at the receiving end in India.
Anupam Kher, a leading proponent of the ‘Pest theory’ – after his tweet exhorting ‘pest-control’ for ‘anti-nationals’ – plays a leading role in the film, that of the socialist professor hobnobbing with the Maoists: he is shown as intolerant of a young man’s ambition, even vengeful, cynical, manipulating, deceptive. He is the mastermind of a racket involving Maoists, NGO workers – represented by Mahi Gil in a really sketchy part – and academia, very much like one of his earlier avatars, Dr Dang. Gil, on that note, is an unrepentant slut sleeping around with whoever wants to sleep with her. She is conveniently bumped off in the end, a fate befitting a woman of loose morals.
After Gil’s death, Kher gives a speech befitting the raving lunatic all communists turn into, when confronted by an i-pod wielding management student the Maoists want to kill (and whom Gil saved by giving up her life )– yes, kill on an urgent basis as his (rather stupid) scheme to sell tribal artefacts in exchange of dollars will deprive them of a government grant which comes via a charity organisation called the Pottery Club run by the professor’s wife. The student, in a final act of delivering the great epiphany on the subject, tells the professor that the tribals want dollars and that is much better than anything communism can deliver.
The film is also a warning how education and social as well as material advancement may still not be enough for a person to develop a modicum of empathy for the under-privileged and dispossessed. Vivek Agnihotri and Anupam Kher – who also did the abominably Islamophobic A Wednesday – are not without trappings of intellectual sophistication. They are successful professionals associated with the arts. But in their desperate need to suck up to power, and hatred of the Other, they have chosen to propound the worst possible view of those differ from them ideologically, based on hardly any evidence. This is nothing but laying the ground for future revenge, based on nothing but blind prejudice and resentment. It did not entirely succeed with the attack on JNU, but the attempts are on.