Friday, December 2, 2011

Does India rock?

Rajesh Kumar Sharma

Has the spirit of the 60s finally arrived in India? Is the new economic order set to liberate our libidinal economies too? Are we at last graduating into the freedom which Nietzsche, Marx and Freud foreshadowed? Imtiaz Ali's Rockstar, released this November, tempts you to wonder.
As a cinematic text embodying the present moment in India's cultural history, the film provokes reflection. Such an irreverent and raw yet tightly crafted challenge has not been thrown at social taboos by any other Indian film in recent years. Indeed, the film narrativises success in terms of a progressive transgression of taboos. And the success is measured in terms of a heady trajectory of self-realization through art. The real irony – the irony of the real – lies in the way the chipping away at social taboos gathers increasing social approval.
It all begins with a mofussil middle class dream fired by the pedestrian teachings of a college canteen guru. The pedestrian, with its banality rubbed ceaselessly into our eyes by a notoriously 'unrealistic', fantasy-driven Bollywood, yields its subversive secret to a man boringly named Janardhan Jakhar. He 'does not have it in him' to make it to the top of the charts. Because he is stupid, he takes the obviously silly advice of his sarak-chhaap guru as a magic mantra. And lo, he breaks the glass ceiling and smashes every boundary. In fact, the guru himself never quite grasps the power of his own words because he does not have the required 'stupidity' to do so, and is quite shaken by his witless disciple's feats. However, the real lends its obscure forces and secret light to the man who does not seek truth elsewhere but in the here and now, not in the high culture's scriptures but in the shop-soiled adages of popular culture. His pursuit of the alternative course stands vindicated when as a pop guitarist he joins, despite his illiteracy in the classical, a renowned shehnai player (played by Shammi Kapoor and based on Ustad Bismillah Khan) in a virtuoso performance of fusion music.
As an instance of cinema as the art of the spectacle reflecting on itself, Rockstar thus celebrates the paradoxical potential of the surface for initiating deep transformations, for rearranging even the defining parameters. In this, the film affirms faith in the 'merely apparent' and the ordinary. Significantly, this is done at a time when grand projects for revolutionary transformation retain little of the 19th century enchantment. The time of the film, rightly, is the time when instead of the revolutionary armies marching across continents you have ordinary people occupying the streets and parks in carnivals of shared anger and joy.
Quick-fix and politically correct feminists may find offensive the treatment meted out to the character of Heer, the heroine, but then she is the locus for mobilizing certain deep, archaic patterns. Heer, in the manner of the women in the ancient Sumerian epic Gilgamesh, initiates the hero into the secret lore of wild self-discovery that would make him a 'speaking subject'. In fact, she even re-names him, giving him to himself. Nearer in time and space, the heroine's name invokes the defiant and transgressive impulses that lie embedded in that name in the cultural memory of the entire north-west of the Indian subcontinent and rendered immortal by the great poet Waris Shah. A strong and assertive young Kashmiri woman, Heer descends from the Himalayas like a latter-day Shakti; she enters the screen with a dance sequence before a diegetic audience performed under shifting cosmic/cosmetic lights. Later on in the film, her role as the hero's parakiya love subliminally evokes the mythology surrounding Radha, the flute-playing god Krishna's companion.
Jordan (the re-invented Janardhan Jakhar) and Prague (the city over which Franz Kafka's immortal spirit presides) are unusual names in a Hindi film, and these pulsate with exotic metaphoric energies. For one thing, the name of a country with ancient civilizational history grafted on to a man's identity preternaturally lends to it a spatio-temporal, geographic and cultural dimension. 'Jordan' means, among other things, 'a steep slope' and 'a downward flow' – something that the hero's course of life follows with fateful inevitability. Prague, likewise, is an almost intuitively made choice. A centre of modern European culture, with a history going back more than a millennium, the city's name means – among other things – 'threshold'. Prague is Kafka's city, in which the film's hero would stand 'before the law' and dare to cross the threshold.
The film confronts the law as inscribed on the bodies as well as the body politic. In the song Sada Haq – which boils together, at high temperature, music and slogan, the metropolitan and the vernacular – Kashmir and Punjab appear in visually seductive images even as libidinal desire and political utopia meld under the romantic blaze of Rousseauistic naturalism that takes to task the ecologists who would not heed the ecology of desire. The demand for 'our rights' is at once economic, political and personal. And it targets law as the ultimate excuse and instrument of repression, whether sexual or political. The fable of the birds that flew away into exile when the city was founded glows like a magnetic fireball around which the film's archetypal myth gathers shape. The innocent and na├»ve birds must return to reclaim their nests, the rebellious voice cries out in a gesture of secession that simultaneously stakes a claim of belonging. It is a remarkable metaphor of alienation owned up and confronted, of historic dispossession from our own bodies and worlds as our real homes.
One cannot avoid reading something significant and sinister in the heroine's fatal pregnancy. The transgression which temporarily brings her back from a slow creeping death also brings the coma that finally seals the world to her. This counter point is a continuation of certain earlier shots which now in retrospect appear ambivalent, such as her drinking with the hero in isolation from the world and their going to see an x-rated movie with her face covered. Those shots indicated a qualified transgression. The fatal pregnancy, which follows the married woman's finally guilt-free love-making with her lover, decisively qualifies an otherwise unconditional transgression.
But does this also mean the woman's sacrifice at the altar of man's creative hunger? Perhaps it does. The last images, except the retrospective ones, are those of the heroine's gorgeous apparition standing before and probably inspiring the ravished hero who seeks still higher ecstasies.
One may fairly ask if the film is not, all said and done, also a pragmatic and prudent declaration in spite of its obvious romanticism and wild permissiveness – the declaration that only one kind of 'revolution' is possible in the late capitalist, globalizing India. This is the ‘revolution’ of personal transgression and its anguished fulfillment through the sacrifice of the other. In this light, the film can be seen as co-opting other political and economic struggles for freedom and justice, just as it does the religious spaces, into its narrative after sanitizing them of their dangerous charge of the 'real'. 

(Published in Daily Post, 2/12/2011 )

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