Retrograde. Bamboozlement! More Bamboozlement!

Kartar Singh, 1959, Pakistan

Originally written for EPW Blog

While Indian cinema of 1950s is mostly blank on the subject of Partition, poet Saifuddin Saif’s Kartar Singh (1959), a Punjabi film from Pakistan is perhaps the best specimen in which we can see the way Partition was explored in moving pictures by a generation that had been recently and directly impacted by the events of 1947.

The story is set in a village where Sikh, Hindus and Muslims are a well-knit unit. The world outside is slowly getting more violent (in the first scene we see local Hindu medicine man Vaid Prem Nath reading the news aloud and wondering about the sorry state of the world) but the village is an island of peace where words of Waris Shah sung by the local mendicant still bring solace to souls of worrying kind. The only sign of trouble in the village is a rakish young Sikh man named Kartar Singh, the antagonist from whom the film gets its name. Kartar Singh is introduced to the viewers as he attempts to abduct a young woman in the dark of the night to settle some old family grudge with another Sikh family. Yet, this violence is not supposed to shock the viewer and is presented as something part of the village culture. Umer Din, a young Muslim man thwarts Kartar Singh’s attempt. However, Umer Din in order to keep peace in the village does not give away the identity of the abductor to anyone. Umer Din has just returned from Burma front of World War II and carries a gun with him. Over the next few scenes (including a “Holi” song set to “bari barsi”), we realise there is a kind of testosterone driven tug war going on between ruffian Kartar Singh and upright Umer Din. However, peace always prevails due to timely intervention by older generation with their words of wisdom. Young women of the village - Sikh, Hindu and Muslim - sing about love and impending marriages. Old folks - Sikh, Hindu and Muslim - dream of marrying off their young ones. Everyone is planning a future. The village mendicant sings words of Waris Shah at all the right interludes.

Unlike the usual films about Partition, at the outset, there is not much mention of politics of that era. No flag waving, no speeches and no leaders. The village is a world in itself.

And then one day the new world knocks at the gates of this idyllic village. News of death of Kartar Singh’s brother in the “sheher” during a communal disturbance brings Pakistan to the village. Some Sikhs rejoice at the news because they know now Kartar Singh too will join them as they carry out random acts of violence in protest against creation of Pakistan. One night, Kartar Singh makes an attempt at Umer Din’s life but the presence of a gun in Umer Din’s hands proves a deterrent. The role of World War II and its impact on social fabric of Indian villages is often missed even in literature that deals with Partition and yet we find it here in this film. A similar phenomena was present in Poonch region of Jammu in 1947, were ex-soldiers rebelled against the Hindu King once the Partition violence spread from Punjab to Kashmir.

The Hindu Vaid tries to reason with Kartar Singh. His argument: if Jinnah and Gandhi are not killing each other, why are you young men ready to kill each other?

Of course, all such arguments are ignored. Soon, Muslims also organise themselves to defend themselves and their lands. News of violence in Bengal, Bihar and Punjab reaches the village. A Muslim mob tries to kill the Hindu Vaid but Umer Din saves him. The village is aflame. Kartar Singh kills the younger brother of Umer Din by stabbing him in the back even as Hindu Vaid tries to deter Kartar Singh. Umer Din goes mad with rage, picks up his rifle and seeks revenge. But the elders manage to stop him by reasoning with him: “Do not see the violence of the tormenters, see the tears of the innocent.” Something one would call today a very “Gandhian” approach. Umer Din is a reasonable man. When the violence ebbs, Muslims leave the village. This is Partition for the village. At this point, the film makes a masterful use of images, sound and symbolism to depict the meaning of Partition for Punjab. The village mendicant throws away his “tumbi” into a burning house, he has no more Waris Shah to offer. Waris Shah has been rendered mute. Instead, the mendicant sings Amrita Pritam’s Ajj Akhaan Waris Shah nu.

The caravan of people leaving for Pakistan is attacked by Kartar Singh’s “toli”. Umer Din gets separated from his sister and kid brother. An elderly Sikh man, a former soldier, would kill his own son to protect Umer Din’s sister. The melodramatics that lead a repentant and dying Kartar Singh to hand over the kid to Umer Din is the usual affliction that afflicts most of the popular cinema in this part of the world. But really makes this film stand apart is the intentional or unintentional manner in which it explains the meaning of nationhood.

The mendicant joins the people going to Pakistan and on reaching Pakistan is seen holding the flag of his new nation as he sings about blood sacrifice of Ghaznavis. The person who in his native village only had an ambiguous existence, in the new hard fought land has discovered a flag and a religion.


Dharmputra (1961)

Originally written for EPW Blog

B R Chopra's Dharmputra (1961) was the second film directed by Yash Raj. It was based on a novel by Acharya Chatursen Shastry (who died in 1960). The screen adaptation was by Akhtar-Ul-Iman. The story is set in Delhi during the time of partition. Although the film is often described as story of a Muslim child who is adopted by a Hindu family and grows up to be a Hindu fanatic, the film is in fact about two religious families and their response to religious fanaticism - a response based on their interpretation of religion, a response steeped in a mishmash “Hindu Humanism” and “Nehruvian Humanism”. The usual: Humanity is the real religion, all religions are equal, so on and so forth.

Husn Bano, daughter of Nawab Badruddin, was in love with commoner Javed who was her tutor. Of course, she gets pregnant. Nawab, although a progressive man, was worried about his status and didn't allow the two to get married. He sought help of Dr Amrit Rai, son of family friend and neighbour who he helped become a doctor. Doctor was conflicted about his duty and honour of his “rakhi” sister. As a solution, Doctor adopted the child giving him his family name. Nawab Badruddin after visiting a dargah has a change of heart and lets the lovers marry. However their out- of-wedlock child, Dalip grows up to be a fanatic who in the climax chanting, “Narayae Bajrang Bali, Har Har Mahadev”, seeks to kill his real parents for being Muslim, who are caught on wrong side of partition line. Of course, when the truth is revealed to him, he suffers a momentary loss of identity only to wake up to the folly of his thinking. He realises how religion is just a constructed identity that depends on environment. He gets married to a smart “westernised” girl and probably lived a happy content life until 1988, when B R Chopra  one Chandramauli Chopra came out with “Ramayana” and his grand-children dreamed of “Ram Mandir”.

The film gives us a portrait of a Hindu fanatic of that era. A man obsessed with “Motherland”, a man conceded with who touches him and what he touches, a man sermonising about culture, a man concerned about westernisation of women, a man much conflicted about marriage and its relation with nation building and a man baying for Muslim blood. In sum, a common garden variety fanatic.

While the film provides a very clear portrait of the fanatic, what the film fails to tell us is how this fanatic was created. There's no answer provided. He's not shown to be part of any organisation. He is not shown as under influence any particular leader. He is just a fanatical student leader, raised in a moderate Hindu family which has brotherly relations with a moderate Muslim family. The only issue these moderate families have handled immoderately is that of “pre-martital” sex and the “illegitimacy” arising out of it.

The hints to origins of this fanatic in the film are subliminal but obvious.

The movement for overthrowing British rule is on. Nawab Badruddin respects Gandhi but doesn't believe in his non-violent ways. Dr Amrit Rai on the other hand is a follower of Gandhi. Nawab Badruddin taunts Amrit Rai for being a coward son of a brave father. Just then, child Dalip walks in holding a toy gun ready to kill the Britishers. Nawab Badruddin tells Amrit Rai that the child is his real son.

Although the tone of the exchange is light and comic, this is an allusion to the way people make relation between blood and behaviour.

Much later when the fanatical traits in Dalip become more obvious, his adoptive mother mock complaining to his real mother Husn Bano, wonders where he could have got such traits from. She does have a point. Besides adopted Dalip, she has other children, twin brothers and a daughter who are shown as regular fun loving people.

It is as if the film seeks to tie it to the question of “aggressive Muslim Blood”. A strangely regressive thought embedded in a film supposedly promoting progressive thinking. While a Hindu may become fanatic because of the environment a Muslim is just more likely to be a fanatic just because he is Muslim. Strange is the world of Indian cinema.

On casual viewing this national award winning film is often easily passed off as a film promoting the vision of Nehru. In fact, when the violence of 1947 is unleashed on its screen, the political voice of sanity in the film is presented as that of Nehru. In the end, this symbolic link is directly set when a voice over of a speech by Rajendra Kumar (in a cameo as a Congress man) is overlaid on a visual of Nehru delivering a peace speech from Red Fort.

But, if you watch this film on YouTube today, you will see people cursing Nehru for trying to ban the works of Acharya Chatursen Shastry. The wiki page for Acharya Chatursen Shastry, without any citation, will ironically tell you: "He was a friend of Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first Prime Minister, but he opposed Nehru's proposition of secular India. Nehru tried to ban his books after Congress came to power and accused Acharya Chatursen of fuelling tensions between Hindus and Muslims. He was also a patriot”.

The politics of 1960s may have been complex but today the things are so simple that even a film like this is just too easy for the fanatics to appropriate.


Our Modi


Originally written for EPW Blog

The newspapers today are filled with congratulations for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The nuances vary, depending on the tone, character, and attitude of the newspaper. All, however, agree on one thing: Modi is a man of stature who has already accomplished historically important deeds and faces still greater challenges. He is the kind of statesman found only rarely in India. During his lifetime, he has the good fortune not only to be appreciated and loved by the overwhelming majority of the Indian people, but even more importantly to be understood by them. He is the only Indian politician since 1947 who understood the real situation and drew the necessary hard and firm conclusions. All the newspapers agree on this. It no longer needs to be said that he has taken up work that started in 1857 and intends to complete it. There is enough proof of this even for those who do not believe, or who think ill of him. I therefore do not think it necessary for me to discuss the historical significance and still unknown impact of this man on the eve of the day on which, far from the bustle of the Indian capital, Modi completes his 64th year. I feel a much deeper need to personally express my esteem for him, and in doing so I believe that I am speaking for many hundreds of thousands of sevaks throughout the country. We shall leave it to those who were our enemies only a few months ago and who then slandered then to praise him today with awkward words and embarrassing pathos. We know how little Modi appreciates such attempts, and how much more the devoted loyalty and lasting support of his friends and fellow fighters corresponds to his nature.

The mysterious magic that he exerts on all who come in contact with him cannot alone explain his historic personality. There is more that makes us love and esteem him. Through all the ups and downs of Narendra Modi’s career, from the beginning of his political activity to the crowning of his career as he seized power, he has always remained the same: a person among people, a friend to his workers, an eager supporter of every ability and talent. He is a pathfinder for those who devoted themselves to his idea, a man who conquered the hearts of his workers in the midst of battle and never released them.

It seems to me that one thing has to be said in the midst of the profusion of feelings. Only a few know Modi well. Most of the millions who look to him with faithful trust do so from a distance. He has become to them a symbol of their faith in the future. Normally the great men that we admire from a distance lose their magic when one knows them well. With Modi the opposite is true. The longer one knows him, the more one admires him, and the more one is ready to give oneself fully to his cause.

We will let others blow the trumpets. His friends and workers gather round him to shake his hand and thank him for everything that he is to us, and that he has given to us. Let me say it once more: We love this man, and we know that he has earned all of our love and support. Never was a man more unjustly accused by the hate and slanders of his ill-wishers of other parties. Remember what they said about him! A mishmash of contradictory accusations! They did not fail to accuse him of every sin, to deny him every virtue. When he nonetheless overcame in the end the flood of lies, triumphing over his enemies and raising 5 million followers on Twitter, fate showed its favor toward him to the entire world. It raised him from the mass of people and put him in the place he deserved because of his brilliant gifts and his pure and flawless humanity.

I remember the years when — just after quitting the kirana shop — he began to rebuild the party. We passed many hours with him in his beloved dhaba in a basti somewhere in Vadnagar. Near us was the quiet dargah where his unforgettable enemy is buried. We walked through the streets, discussed plans for the future, and talked about theories that today have long since become reality. We sent him to Delhi. We gave him a difficult and challenging task of pushing our rath, and I still thank him today that he gave us the final push.

A few year later we sat in a room in a big Delhi office. The party had again been vilified by the Secular-Communist-Marxist-ISIist-Naxalite-Unnationalistic Media-types. Heavy blows were falling on it. The party was full of discouragement, bickering and quarrelling. Everyone was complaining about everyone else. Godhra ye-Godha-wo. The whole organization seemed to have given up.

Modi, however, did not lose courage, but immediately began to organize a defense, and help came when it was needed. Although he had personal and political difficulties, he found the time and strength to deal with the problems with little opportune support from his friends in the capital.

One of his fine and noble traits is that he never gives up on someone who owns his a favour. The more his political opponents attack such a person, the more loyal is Narendra Modi’s support. He is not the kind of person who is afraid of strong associates. The harder and tougher a man is, the more Modi likes him. If things fall apart, his capable hands put them together again. Who would have thought it possible that a mass organization that has only one ideology could be build in this nation of individualists? Doing that is Modi's great accomplishment. His principles are firm and unshakable, but he is generous and understanding toward human weaknesses. He is a pitiless enemy of his opponents, but a good and warm-hearted friend to his workers. That is Modi.

We saw him at the party’s two large Delhi rallies, surrounded by the masses who saw in him India's hope. In the evenings, we sat with him in his Prime-Ministerial room. He was dressed in a simple white kurt a, the same as always, as if nothing had happened. Someone once said that the great is simple, and the simple is great. If that is true, it surely applies to Modi. His nature and his whole philosophy is a brilliant simplification of the spiritual need and fragmentation that engulfed the India people after the 1947. He found the lowest common denominator. That is why his idea won: he modelled it, and through him the average man in the street saw its depth and significance.

One has to have seen him in defeat as well as victory to understand what sort of man he is. He never broke. He never lost courage or faith. Hundreds came to him seeking new hope, and no one left without receiving renewed strength.

On the day before 15 August 2014, we met in a small farm house outside Delhi. We talked deep into the night, but not about our prospects for the next day, but rather about music, philosophy, and worldview issues. Then came the experiences one can only have with him. He spoke of the difficult years of his youth in Vadnagar and Nagpur, of his Emergency experiences, of early years of the party. Few know how hard and bitterly he had to fight. Today he is surrounded by praise and thanks. Only twelve years ago he was a lonely individual among millions. The only difference between him and they was his burning faith and his fanatic resolve to transform that faith into action.

Those who believed that Modi was finished after the party’s defeat in May 2004 failed to understand him. Only someone who did not know him at all could make such a mistake. Modi is one of those persons who rises from such defeats. Friedrich Nietzsche’s phrase fits him well: “That which does not destroy me only makes me stronger.”

This man, suffering under financial and party problems for years, assailed by the flood of lies from his enemies, wounded in the depths of his heart by the disloyalty of false friends, still found the limitless faith to lift his party from desperation to new victories.

How many thousands of kilometers have I sat behind him in cars or airplanes on election campaigns. How often did I see the thankful look of a man on the street, or a mother lifting her child to show him, and how often have I seen joy and happiness when people recognized him.

He kept his pockets filled with packets of candies, each worth ana-do-ana. Every lad he met got one. He had a friendly word for every mother and a warm handshake for every child.

Not without reason does the Indian youth admire him. They know that this man is young at heart, and that their cause is in his good hands. At the last Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) meet we sat with him in his office in Delhi. A group of young men from Vadnagar, where he was born, came by for a visit. How surprised these lads were when they got not only a friendly greeting, but all fifteen lads were invited in. They got a dhokla, and had to tell him about great development in his hometown of Vadnagar.

The people have a fine sense for the truly great. Nothing impresses the people as deeply as when a person truly belongs to his people. Of whom but Modi could this be true: As he returned from Delhi to Ahmedabad, people waved in every street. The children shouted NaMo NaMo and threw bouquets of flowers into the car. The security had closed the M. G. Road. There was no moving either forward or back. Confidently and matter-of-factly, the head of security walked up to the car and said: “Netaji, an old party member is dying in the hospital, and his last wish is to see his Neta.”

Mountains of work were waiting in office. But Modi ordered the car to turn around, and sat for half an hour in the hospital at the bedside of his dying party worker.

The Secular-Communist-Marxist-ISIist-Naxalite-Unnationalistic Media-types claimed he was a tyrant. What is he really? He is the best friend of his workers. He has an open heart for every sorrow and every need, he has human understanding. He knows each of his associates thoroughly, and nothing happens in their public or private lives of which he is not aware. If misfortune happens, he helps them to bear it, and rejoices more than anyone else at their successes.

Never have I seen his two sides in anyone else. We had dinner together on the night of the Godhra fire. We talked and listened to music. Modi was a person among people. Twenty minutes later he stood in the smoldering, smoking ruins of Godhra and gave piercing orders that led to the destruction of pseudo-secularism. Later he sat in an editorial office and dictated an article.

For those who do not know Modi, it seems a miracle that millions of people love and support him. For those who know him, it is only natural. The secret of his success is in the indescribable magic of his personality. Those who know him the best love and honor him the most. One who has sworn allegiance to him is devoted to him body and soul.

I thought it was necessary tonight to say that, and to have it said by someone who really knows him, and who could find the courage to break through the barriers of reserve and speak of Modi the man.

Today he has left the bustle of the capital. He left the wreaths and hymns of praise in Delhi. He is somewhere in his beloved Gujarat, far from the noise of the streets, to find peace and quiet. Perhaps he is online and reading this. If that should happen, then let me say to him, and to all of India: My Leader! Millions and millions of the best Indians send you their best wishes and give you their hearts. And we, your closest associates and friends, are gathered in honor and love. We know how little you like praise. But we must still say this: You have lifted India from its deepest disgrace to honor and dignity. You should know that behind you, and if necessary before you, a strong and determined group of fighters stands that is ready at any time to give its all for you and your idea. We wish both for your sake and ours that fate will preserve you for many decades, and that you may always remain our best friend and karyakarta. This is the wish of your fellow fighters and friends for your birthday. We offer you our hands and ask that you always remain for us what you are today:

Our Modi!


Plagiarized by an Indian Goebbel from Goebbels’ 1933 Speech on Hitler’s Birthday [Here]

'Fritz Lang's Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (1933)'


She looks at the speed dial
They are going to die
She smiles


Sholay Comic Causation

Originally written for EPW Blog 

"…how much does he earn?"

"Once he gets married, he will start earning too."

"So, does he not earn anything now?"

"He does but a man can't always win. Sometimes he loses too."


"Isn't that's true of gambling?"

"So, he's a gambler!"

"No, not a gambler but once he gets drunk, he obviously can't help playing a hand or two."

"Gambler and a drunkard too. But he's too nice a person according to you!"

"Of course! Once married, he will stop visiting that dancer's house and his drinking-gambling days will be over too"

"So, he goes to the house of some dancer too!"

"What's wrong with that? Only bluebloods have such taste."

"Alright then, tell me about his bloodline too"

"As soon as we find anything about his bloodline, we will certainly inform you…"

"I have to agree, your friend may not be a good person. But you certainly are a good friend."

"That, I am."

That's a rough translation of the famous comic scene from Sholay (1975) where Jai tries to talk Mausie Ji into letting (or not letting) Basanti marry his good friend Veeru. 

The dialogues in the scene follows a certain format. There's a simple question and then an answer that's unexpected and then more question that lead to some more unexpected answers till the real purpose of the exchange is resolved. 

Another example of the same dialogue:
V. O mendicant, do you indulge in eating mutton ?
K. What is the good of it without liquor ?
V. Do you like liquor too ?
K. Together with prostitutes.
V. A prostitute requires to be given money ; wherefrom do you get it?
K. Either by gambling or stealing.
V. Are you addicted to gambling and stealing too ?
K. What other end may not a fallen person come to ?

This dialogue takes place between legendary king Vikramaditya and Kalidasa. I came across it in a paper titled Birth-Place of Kalidasa By Pandit Anand Koul. Published in Journal of Indian History VII (1928). The scene from Sholay was the first thing that come to my mind after reading those lines.

The same motifs - Drinking, Gambling, Harlots, and a resolution.

Little more reading revealed that this joke has been told for centuries. It was part of all major literary traditions of ancient India, told and re-told in various ways but always following the same format.

The following lines are from sanskrit anthological work 'Subhasitavali' of Vallabhadeva (fifteenth-century CE, Kashmir ) quoted in 'Laughing Matters: Comic Tradition in India' (1987 ) by Lee Siegel:

"In a similar stanza a Buddhist monk, asked a rather innocent question, reveals his true nature. The rhetorical structure of the poem seems to parody Buddhist dialectics and the philosophy of causation. 'Why,' he is asked, are his 'robes so long and so loose?'
'Because I use then as a net for the catching of fish.'
'You eat fish?'
'Yes, for fish with my liquor is a most savoury dish.'
'You drink booze?'
'Yes, but just when I'm out with whores pursuing my pleasure.'
'You go to whores?'
'Yes, after thrashing my enemies, just for good measures.'
'You have enemies'
'Yes, but only those whose homes I have robbed of their treasure.'
'You steal?'
'Yes. to pay off the debts I've incurred with my gambling itch'
'You gamble?'
'Yes, yes, yes! I am, as you see, a real son of a bitch.'
The poem is comic, is ludicrous to the degree that actuality contradicts expectation, that each successive line surprises."

The same story is part of Hemavijaya's Katha-Ratnakara (16th /17century. Sanskrit/Prakrit) for Jainas. It is in Sinhalese-Buddhist dialogue presented in J. E. Seneviratne's The life of Kalidas (1901) published in Colombo. And in Ksemendra's Lokaprakasa. [All listed in  'A History of Indian Literature: Buddhist literature and Jaina literature' by Moriz Winternitz] The joke was always employed to mock the monks of the other sects. 

We can only guess how this ancient comic ploy ended up getting reworked in Sholay. Maybe it was a popular joke around that era and, as often happens with Bollywood films, was added into the film as a random token comic relief. But the sequence in the film does continue the same old tradition faithfully. Even though, unlike the ancient version, in the film sequence the two main characters are talking about a third person, by the end of it true nature of the person answering the questions is revealved. The resolution again completes the joke.


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