Ahmer Nadeem Anwer
Doesn’t have a point of view,
Knows not where he’s going to,
Isn’t he a bit like you and me?
Nowhere Man, please listen –
You don’t know what you’re missin’
Nowhere Man, the world is at your command!
In terms of the provenance, propinquity and social ethics of some of his current public engagements, Amitabh Bachchan seems to exude all the moral dubiety of an invisible man – a ‘Nowhere Man’. It isn’t as though the actor can’t act with decent personal-social ethics. To cite just one example close to home, family sources have told me that when K. A. Abbas (who introduced the star in Saat Hindustani) lay fighting for his life near the end, Bachchan just quietly underwrote the medical bills – sans fanfare or publicity glitz. In this he showed himself more caring, magnanimous and decent than some others who owed Abbas way more. Nor, surely, could that be a one-off good deed; there must be others in that line.
Still, he does come across of late as a figure swathed in paradoxes, shadows and contradictions that may seem just a shade disturbing, perhaps even a little sinister. Bachchan’s trajectory down the years, but especially his recent flirtations with far-Right sectarian elements in the polity – outfits that would, if they could, have silenced an Abbas in every imaginable sense and meaning –, give unsettling pause for thought. Recent developments show for example how complete and thoroughgoing is the matinee idol’s problematic enmeshment in brand promotion for the state of Gujarattoday. The Entertainment Daily ofJune 4, 2010 carried a report noting that the Bollywood superstar, having already shot some of the sequences at the Gir forest and in the Junagarh region, had now visited the historic Somnath temple. Overtly of course it’s all very pleasantly accoutred as part of an ad-campaign style shoot purporting to do no more than promote tourism in the state, yet the overdetermined symbolism of Somnath as a prime early destination of Bachchan’s hard sell ‘campaign’ in Modi’s state cannot be lost on anyone. It was from this very spot after all that almost exactly two decades ago L. K. Advani’s fateful and infamous Rath Yatra had been set rolling, leaving in its wake a long and harrowing trail of devastation and internecine societal divisions – a symbolic journey whose conceptual (and praxeological) end point was the razing of the Babri mosque on December 6, 1992. For even the most complete technical/judicial let off for powerful persons widely believed to be mired in the run up to the occurrence could not hope to convincingly establish for everyone that this traumatic and politically convulsive modern demolition of a place of worship was the work of hands wholly and solely divine.
Fast forward to June 2010. While the overall ambience of the latest promotional venture involving Amitabh’s visit to Somnath has all along been imagically packaged as conspicuously “touristy” (“During a shooting sequence, Bachchan was seen wearing a traditional red kurta, while taking pictures of the temple’s architecture”), sightseeing pleasures are clearly not unmixed with hardnosed business considerations in the case: ANI reported that as part of his drive to promote Gujarat tourism, the star would also produce a film under the banner of his production company, Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Limited (ABCL). And, as if to seal the multilevel pact in straight bucks, the Bachchan starrer Paa suddenly became tax free in Gujarat in the wake of the actor’s visit. Thus a loaded mix brewed of various quid pro quo arrangements and semiotically surcharged signifier plays of mutual interest and benefit underpin what symbolically, and at bottom, is after all an ideological alliance (advertising, when fully imbricated with politics is more accurately known as “propaganda”). So even though Bachchan would be unlikely to broadcast too loudly the underlying politics of the deal, and may even prefer to keep it as a quietly unspoken subtext of the relationship, this doubleness of the liaison, its simultaneous status as both business and ideological politics, is no doubt what seals the pact. In the event, the rhapsodic slogan for Bachchan’s campaign may be all very touching and edifying, yet the poetical aroma of the slogan itself – “Khushboo Gujarat Ki” – might strike the unconverted as a tad too ersatz and meretricious, all things considered, to be entirely in good taste. Some might wonder whether it’s not perhaps even positively malodorous – what’s the smell of burning human flesh really like, you might ask, if you’re not wholly carried away by the photo-op effulgence and lyric rapture of the ‘show’!
So how does the once clean-cut and sober-countenanced son of a Gandhian nationalist poet and one-time English professor who translated Omar Khayyam, who received the Soviet Land Nehru award and had originally named his first son Inquilab (after the revolutionary slogan ‘inquilab zindabad’, vive la révolution) – how does this man, having come from where he did, get so thoroughly sucked up into the cynical and seamy side of political contacts-building and (to adapt Scott Fitzgerald) the “business go(o)nnections” game – to the point where he today can set aside every sobering compunction in the selection of friends and foes, and causes to promote? The man first called “Inquilab” eventually became “Amitabh”, which translates as the light that would never go off. No? “O Hamlet, what a falling-off was there!”
It might perhaps be too quixotic at this late turn in the plot, to expect a serious change of course, far less a complete turnabout by the megastar on those far-reaching but deeply questionable choices, or to now essay a major recharting of the trajectory. Perhaps it’s already too late.
Still, it’s worth pondering just how much impactual power such a hyper-charismatic public personality wields in a society ever more consummately shaped by mass culture and its deities, and what might be the effect of an Amitabh Bachchan deciding to put his weight behind a more healing societal politics. If one’s identity has taken on hallowed (or brand name) proportions, does it, or doesn’t it, even in the present-day arena of universal salesmanship, matter what ‘products’ a super-celebrity elects to ‘endorse’, ‘advertise’ and ‘promote’ – especially when the costs of the deal might be counted in blood, tears and human suffering? Or is social responsibility become just too passé a phrase and idea at the moment that all of life becomes just big bucks, promotional tie ups and 24-7 entertainment?
At one level, and in certain circles at least, this is to ask the unaskable question. A nearly supernatural halo walks withIndia’s all-time No.1 film celebrity, his Star of the Millennium status ratified by a worldwide online opinion poll held by BBC in 1999. The name ‘Amitabh Bachchan’ by now has become so iconic, so enthroned, so eponymously and uncontestedly ‘Big’, that it’s practically heresy to cast serious doubt on the Great Man’s bonafides. In the shimmering mass-culture atmospherics of a media-age that crafts the idealised if ersatz identity of the super-celebrity by continually churning out shiny and hypertrophic images, the fabulistic transfiguration of a real-time individual into pure and sublimated cult symbol closes off serious inquiry.
And yet that very closure of the questions provokes them. A resolutely make-believe reality, a “reality of images”, produces wonderment as to what precisely lies beneath (or behind) the glitter and publicity, and what is the real quantum of ‘greatness’ in a hyper-celebrity’s glory, sheen, and contributions on the ground.
This is a completely genuine problem in the age of consumerist hype and promotional aggrandisement. Once someone becomes dubbed “Great” and “Big”, i.e. sufficiently larger-than-life (literally the “Big B”), then the ‘image’ looms and towers over the person from a height incommensurably greater than six foot three. The image takes over – it, the looming super-image, now, is the man – twisting Derrida a little, “there is nothing outside the image.” From this point on, an objective sifting of reality from the supplied imagery becomes more or less impossible. Yet as Elvis Presley once confided, “the image is one thing; the human being is another.” And sometimes the sifting of the two, however ‘impossible’, becomes a necessity, even an urgent demand of the times.
For if ‘what one does’ is placed beyond the pale of criticism and interrogation simply on account of ‘who one is’, or rather ‘what one’s brand image is’, what then are the social costs of an absolute closing off of inquiry? Might the arresting of truth by the politics of the unimpeachable image not sometimes become, in a quite precise meaning, dangerous? It is a question that at this moment haunts and pursues the idea of ‘Amitabh Bachchan’.
These would be non-questions, if this were simply a minor personality, a non-entity. Bachchan is anything but that. His impact gains significance precisely from its massiveness. The Bachchan imprimatur and star status are more than simply big – they enjoy a reach and influence that are all-pervasive and properly hegemonic. We are talking of a level of public adulation that approaches saturation and totalising of the recreational space by a single Indian individual and name, at least imaginatively if not quite literally, a phenomenon that has continued in force through nearly four decades of India’s mass cultural life.
Some of this is a tribute to the star’s talent and the power of his appeal. Bachchan genuinely is hugely talented at what he does. At the height of his success blitz, he turned in a line of, in his idiom, compelling and surcharged performances, playing a type of ‘hero’ that blazed its imprint upon the collective unconscious of a subcontinent and gave the film industry an unprecedented streak of mega-hits that changed the scale and economics of commercial film-making ventures in India. Strictly commercially, the scale of his ‘success’ remains unrivalled.
Moreover, he has commanded more than his public’s adulation and box-office shellouts; he has commanded their unbounded loyalty and love. When Amitabh suffered a grievous injury during the filming of Coolie and fought for his life, a nation’s thoughts and prayers fought alongside him. The lines of division between man, deity and national hero had been indivisibly blurred.
But that’s the nub. Does such demotic adoration on that ‘universalist’ a scale not place at least some claims upon its recipient, implicate something necessary to be given back to society? Would it be justified to say that a debt of love that large even bestows duties of accountability toward society, some responsibility to at the very least abstain from doing active harm through careless use of one’s nearly divine influence? Or is it just an amoral Hobbesian jungle out there, where anything goes, everyone is fair game, and all’s up for the taking?
Where to begin? Perhaps with the films. After all, an artist’s space of accountability starts from the artefact. It would thus be in order to start by putting some questions to the sort of screen portrayals that catapulted Bachchan not just to matinee-idol fame, but to the status of one who in the public imaginary very nearly became a ‘national’ answer to the childlike yet slightly unnerving dream of an all-conquering ‘Superman’, in the comic strip as well as the Nietzschean connotations of that word, senses which have known their space of nearly unthinkable ‘political’ effects in modern times. The mythic personae of Bachchan’s ascendancy modelled a relentless, intrepid and invincible superhero in whom a subcontinent could fantasise its ‘answer’, its touching hope of deliverance from fear, sorrow, weakness and pain, through the hero’s tough fighting engagements that brook no contradiction.
If so, then we need to ask: just what sort of superhero figure was this Angry Young Man character portrayed by Amitabh Bachchan in his most definitive and signatural screen avatars? Can we, by asking that question perhaps shed a some demystifying light on some of the actor’s seemingly random, irrational and ‘out of character’ recent real life choices? Is it possible to take a longue durée view of the background of Amitabh Bachchan’s current ‘promoter relationship’ with Modi’s Gujarat, relating this through close critical analysis of certain archetypal ‘film-texts’ that probes tell-tale mass cultural elements embedded therein, to the implied sociology of much of Bachchan’s definitive filmography?
Beginning with Zanjeer, right through such superhits as Deewar, Trishul, Lawaaris , Don and others of their ilk, an identifiable plotting economy and characterological morphology takes shape. The staple formulae of ‘romance’ narrative tropes are freely harvested for the plots of these films. A calamity/crisis, usually man made, abruptly and violently sunders hitherto happy familial generations (parents and children) and explodes in an instant the safe and kindly protective structures of ‘home’. The resulting shock sets the palimpsest of loss, trauma and deep-seated insecurity but also a simmering anger and indeed hatred in the child-protagonist’s heart. This is a man with a grudge. Years of gruelling struggles, hardships and survival battles ensue, suitably ‘time-foreshortened’ to allow for that prolificatory zoom forward-and-upward to the long legs of the adult Bachchan, who can now come in and ‘take over the show’.
A newly toughened-up former victim now stands tall before us; he has been ‘reborn’ as an indomitable adult; from now on he shall brook no insult or injury. An embattled (but also romanticised and love-relieved) middle phase of the saga consisting of the amorous adventures and heroic exploits of a more and more assertive and aggressive protagonist carries forward the ‘brutal bildungsroman’ plot, setting the stage for ultimate victory. The latter is a grand and comprehensive affair combining simultaneously the motifs of miraculous survival, joyous reunion and unimagined prosperity for those whom the world had hitherto harshly injured and cruelly dispossessed – he has recovered home, parents, siblings, and acquired a fairy of a girl as well as a boundless fortune for himself en route. It seems like poetic justice has finally sent back a dose of its own medicine to a hard and mean world.
So far so good. Thus far, it’s all very edifying.
What complicates the picture is the entry, decisively, of another ingredient into the moral landscape of romance. This new element holds the key to the social hermeneutic of the ‘revised romance’. In reality its ancestry too lies in a type of adventure narrative closely related to the ‘magical’ world of medieval romance literature – the tales of knight errantry. The emphasis here falls not just on the trials, tribulations and ordeals – the hardships endured by the hero – typical of the ‘lost and found security’ plot of romance sagas, but, crucially, on the ruthless and savage relentlessness with which the chevalier, using hand to hand armed combat, sets about savagely destroying the forces of Manichean darkness and evil, the latter cast in nightmarish, mythic, nearly supernatural shades and hues.
From this genre-space arises, in the old knightly adventure tales, the harsh tension and frisson of a battle of attrition. The virtuous knight’s narrative function here is to engage in mortal combat a cornucopian menagerie of grizzly monsters: the dragon, the cruel lord, the blood-sucking ravisher of damsels, or ‘vampire’, the witch, evil genie and sorcerer, in short the “Ogre” in his myriad variants. Lecherous, leery and gratuitously cruel, the generic Ogre is one in whom all the medieval idea of feudal oppression is evoked in graphically exact detail, and yet with the blood-curdling generality and nebulousness of nightmare. This draconian beast could dissolve the will of a brave soul, freeze a strong spine.
As urban modernity’s reborn crusader-at-arms, Bachchan’s Angry Young Man keeps the violence and savagery from the knightly trope but slightly reinflects the tone, making the flamboyant knockout of this outlandish monster by a plebeian nobody look like ‘fun’, something easy and outrageously rib-tickling and to be enjoyed by all. It might be called ‘Dirty Street Fighting as Mass Entertainment Spectacle’. The street-fighting low-knight isn’t the least bit unfazed or daunted by the fire-breathing dragon’s growlings, he turns a cheeky middle finger up at it with roadside insouciance, and coolly starts sending the shysters packing (“all in a day’s work”, then dust your hands off and walk away Mr Cool Customer). The crowds love it. They pack the theatres and cheer on their ‘street fightin’ man’ with loud wolf whistles and howls of approval. After all, he’s doing it for them single-handedly, effortlessly undoing their myriad humiliations in the real world. A pact of complicity between actor and audience has been silently sealed, the deal has been struck.
Utopia has become reality. The tough way.
The chevalier trope, as grafted on to the urban jungle of a Bachchan film’s social topography, is a deliberately displaced anachronism. The medieval knight’s battles had pertained to an archaically organised, pre-modern world. In the chivalric trope instant justice was viewed as justified when the coup de grace was delivered by an armed combatant in the heat of unavoidable encounters (‘feuding’). In a world of ‘lawless’ feudatories who recognised no limits upon their armed banditry, and with no real legal recourse or court of appeal in sight, ‘justice’ was too often experienced as only possible to be exacted ‘primitively’, from the point of the implacable sword and spear, when wielded in instant private requital by the man of valour and honour.
In its lumpenised modern-urban transference in a Bachchan film we see a strategic modulation of this situation. The formal apparatuses of modern society aren’t exactly absent or disorganised (it’s no longer the Middle Ages), but they stand by politely because in the Bollywoodian filmic economy they are required to be emasculated spectators and mute witnesses whose ‘impotent’ withdrawal helps offset and blow up to cowing scale the phallactic display of ‘upstanding’ conquestador supremacy by a one man army of social correction. The frequent upward moving camera shots scaling the long legs, then the pelvis, then the torso….then the full vertical length of the uncommonly tall and straight young Bachchan, emphasises both the towering individualism and the subtexted phallacticism of the informing idea. (He also often ‘rises up’ from a prone or seated position, uncoils his full length, to gaze down amusedly at his negligible and now suitably deflated would-be challengers with the derisive male sneer of one who knows his full height in the erect perpendicular.)
And let’s not forget that historically, even the old privatised knightly justice system itself was not exactly a sweet-smelling rose garden, it was actually rather brutal and ugly business really as August Bebel reminded us (Woman in the Past, Present and Future), gory, violent and messy, although typically the lyric romanticising of chivalric butchery helped sublimate, idealise and swathe in glowing effulgence the smelly contagion of barbarism, spilled guts and savage blood lust that spreads through the sagas of gory reprisals visited by the lone ranger/knight-at-arms.
In the deliberately crude ‘slum naturalism’ of a Bachchan film, latter-day urban knight-errantry is stripped of even the pretence of a sweet and shiny halo, while the mystique around raw violence and tough vendettas is retained, refurbished and hard-sold by the technologisation of the prolific image. What survives thus is an openly incendiary cult of quick fists and flashing gunfire that valorises hardened individual terror in the streets and backalleys. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. The tough-minded and unsqueamishly violent are admired precisely because they are ‘brave’ in a ‘bad’ world, that is to say free of qualms about drawing blood when they ‘need to’ – they even exult and revel in their roaring-swearing-kicking triumphs.
Modernity’s lumpenised superheroes, of whom Bachchan’s scowling, snarling, leaping, kicking, enraged young panther-of-man is a classic urban-Asiatic exemplar, are a street law unto themselves. Latter-day demotic knights, they will not recognise any boundary to the rough remedies that might need to be unleashed on the heads of offenders who’d made the supreme mistake of ‘provoking’ the Angry Young Lion in his den and now needed to be given some basic instruction in life’s realities (does the typical claim that rioters in ethnic pogroms had been “provoked beyond tolerance” and it was “high time ‘some people’ were taught a needed lesson” ring a bell?)
The lust for vengeful blood is a visceral yearning. Sociologically, it spreads randomly through a whole melange of shadowy emblems of modern anomie gathered under the saturnine skyline. In this nocturnal suburban shadow land dwell prowling vagrant hoodlums in the neighbourhood; alluringly charming petty criminals and ‘good hearted’ larcenists a girl might meet and fall for at the local garage or eatery; bandit heroes of urban muggings and sundry hold-up men who one knows are ‘really good at heart’; taunting-teasing ‘soft’ sex-offenders who ‘steal her heart’ by their ‘naughty’ pranks and smart remarks – naturally; neonazi provocateurs banded together by a ‘just cause’ for their resentments; indignant punishers of dirty-glance attentions to ‘our women’; rebel-heroes of amorphously ‘disorganised’ social eruptions and ‘angry’ crowd inciters who lead ‘spontaneous’ outbursts of street mayhem, inevitably reported as “bizarre” by crime-beat reporters, etc., etc.… To this strange and heterogeneous consortium belong, too, the dark-(k)night prowlings of the New Batman’s gothical night-time adventures and those ‘scenes’ of slouching city wastrels getting suddenly proactive and nasty with “Them”, with cause – or without…
In such precarious circumstances, the cognate world becomes one big powder-keg, waiting to explode.
Yet it isn’t quite completely inchoate or indirectional. From one point of view, the social identity of these rootless representatives of a ‘lost’ generation rivets and fascinates, because it feeds into a very ‘Romantic’ typology. It is the idea of the Byronic-Satanic hero, the aggrieved social-revenger, the hurt-and-angry Heathcliffian personality type, the drifters and Raskolnikovs of the world looking for ‘something to do’ that would in a moment ‘make them somebody’.
As realised in Bachchan starrers, the formula kicks off with the ‘return to base’ of a lacerated young underdog who comes back to stake his claims, from a ‘leave of absence’ spent in some shadowy interspace ‘somewhere’. His moral rebirth on return reinvents him as an unstoppable scourge. This man has come back from the nether regions to settle accounts. The notion gladdens because it enacts the magical metamorphosis of the weak, powerless and victimised into stingingly empowered guise – quite the match now for those that did them in. The prodigal-come-home is satisfyingly transformed on all counts: filthy rich, impressively well-connected, unbelievably strong (can kill with his bare hands if it comes to the punch), and irresistibly ‘potent’ in both brain and brawn – not to mention the rest of the male equipment.
Having ‘returned’ he now proceeds to use his newfound authority to lay low former plagues and hated destroyers of loved ones. The flauntingly nasty low-urban parts played by Nana Patekar as harsh-accented Tapori, rough or ‘heavy’, the ‘psychopathic’ and once wronged conmen-killers of early SRK films, the (perceptually) child-abused Dark Double in Kaminey (scarcely distinguishable from the bad guys), even the ‘righteous’ law officer of Ardha Satya convinced of his right to fascistic moral violence – all are variants, cousins and generic children of the Bollywood original: Bachchan’s justly ballistic Angry Young Men. His was the trademark prototype.
But who exactly are these primal ogres that the urban chevalier finds himself honour-bound to destroy and decimate, in those archetypal Bachchan films?
Now, the social parentage of those paragons of evil is intriguing. These are hazily and strategically unspecific social insects. They crawl out of the nebulous loci of perfidy in which dwell sundry middle-level malefactors – whoozy-shifty bootleggers; ‘smugglers’; petty larcenists; conmen on the make who ‘made it’ to real but unspecified power and authority; neighbourhood dons and their malodorous henchmen; assorted ‘traitors of the nation’ (desh ke dushman) with the sort of undecided social ancestry that the great Indian middle class loves to hate, ‘alien’ social types who can be held conveniently in blame for the ‘pervasive rot’ in the ‘entire system’; and so on and so on… The societal face of Radical Evil, as realised in a Bachchan film (unlike in say Shree 420), is so wonderfully generalised in soft-focus that it never points a clear finger of identification at the hidden but systemic violence of the politico-economic order itself, never dares, or cares, to name the real culprits: organised power, pelf and property; the institutions and apparatuses of authority and their part in victim-making; the network of ideological controls; the politics of hate and intimidation, et al that undergird and enable the actual web of exclusion and exploitive privilege in the deep structures of a society foundationed on repression, iniquity and truly because subtly violent asymmetries of advantage and entitlement.
Consequently the mythological Evil One whom Bachchan’s superhero ‘relentlessly battles’ is in fact an unreal, if repellent Public Enemy. His ‘looming and sinister’ presence on the landscape is a misleading and somewhat droll caricature because he is asked to carry the full load and onus for wreaking a scale of havoc on the wretched of the land that any isolated Bad Guy and putative ‘criminal’, howsoever smelly, drunken or displeasingly featured, simply cannot bear in life.
One is reminded of early Hollywood gangster movies with their moral echo of the “let’s go get ’em” crusader tirades of J. Edgar Hoover. In a hotly publicised campaign to rid society of its ‘vermin’, Hoover swore with public-spirited fury to hunt down ‘organised crime’ even as the crusader meanwhile broke cosy bread with the Mafia in a business ‘arrangement’ convenient to all! Viewed in this patina, it turns out that the ‘ugly don’, the ‘traitorous smuggler’ et al – or the furious fist-shaking at that universal red rag, ‘corruption’ – function in the Bollywoodian counterpart of Hoover’s vermin-hunting crusader rhetoric, as a diversionary red herring that helps deflect attention from the real constitutional nature of social evil.
One could argue that behind the selective focus on hateful ‘bad guys’ lies a systematic if invisible strategy. According to Slavoj Zizek for instance (Violence, Picador, 2008) the peculiarly late-modern obsession with villainous perpetrators of “subjective violence” is able to offer convenient and continuously available candidates for everybody’s favourite scapegoat. Through an exaggerated focus on various malignant ‘moral worms’ and sickening societal ‘excrescences’ on whom may be projected all of our instinctive loathing for oppression, chicanery and social ‘monstrosity’, it becomes possible for the large-scale endemic and deep-structural violence of modern exploitive societies and their accompanying political arrangements – the truly profound and systemic “objective violence” of the hegemonic institutions and mentalités which predicate as inevitable the more dramatically in-your-face explosions of local/individual subjective violence in the body politic – to be elided, nullified and made invisible.
In mass cultural representation such a ploy proves exculpative for the real public enemies. Thus the smugglers, interlopers, lechers, insect-crushing sociopaths et al may get elevated to ‘universal oppressor’ status in the Amitabh Bachchan filmic saga, but in fact they remain no more than mythic oppressors, mere oppressors-by-proxy. In the bargain, societal evil is not just simplistically and caricaturally dumped upon various pointlessly maligned ‘evil persons’ and ‘villains’ (whose main crime as far as one can tell is that they’re less comely in looks and romantic appeal than the no less violent, goonish and merciless hero), it is in fact displaced, defanged and evacuated of any sociological substance and meaning. Anyone and thus no one in particular, gets designated as nasty and ‘bad’, and a more or less irrelevant substitute gets to bear a totality of guilt for all the wrongs visited on the weak and powerless in a political society that in effect remains collectively clean-handed in the abuse of the victim, and thus safe and stable, and beyond accusation.
A yet darker consequence, albeit ‘heroic’, follows. The totalised centring of the will to social cruelty and violence in errant and ‘diseased’ individuals, in terms of the narrato-structural logic, inevitably invites and vindicates a ‘fitting’ and matchingly individualised ‘reaction’ in like idiom. ‘Swinish’ behaviour provokes and gives permission to a no less swinish, no-holds-barred ‘total war’ on the hated ‘social scum’ (Goebbels’s ‘Sportplast’ or “total war” speech of 1943 comes to mind; the phrase was borrowed and reused by George W. Bush in a speech in August 2007).
Enactments of directly inflicted orgies of unlimited restitutive violence led by an authorised ‘Übermensch’ are granted absolute moral authority in such circumstances. The ‘hero’ then stands in as an inflammable postmodern society’s sanctioned instrument of correction and the stern guarantor of its ‘security’ – once again by proxy and substitution.
Perhaps the darkest consequence of all here is that “total”, i.e. utterly unshackled subjective violence is both hated (in the ‘scum’) and normalised and legitimated (in the hero). Needless to say, ‘the scum’ is always ‘Them’. Once ‘We’ are offered sufficient provocation, it becomes quite alright to hit back at ‘Them’ with a frenzied freedom of murderous passion. Viewed in terms of the gestic language and informing ‘attitude’ behind the public revenger’s social stance however, no clear and categoric divide separates the space of sheer, purified violence – whether arch-villainous, or superheroic – that both the Gruesome Ambassador from the Underworld and his remorseless Scourge-and-Nemesis inhabit in common, and with equally flamboyant and reckless pleasure in annihilation and unlocked mayhem. The Nemesis just got better at the game.
The trick of course is to make vindictive viciousness – the viciousness of unbridled, utterly unshackled private vendettas – honourable, entertaining, and above all seductively glamorous. By the excited and pleasured gut-response to the ‘juicy’ spectacle of the son-of-a-dog “getting his deserts” at the hands of a ratified social avenger, the predicated excess of unrestrictedly violent and bloodthirsty responses is freed of instinctive horror, and invites enthusiastic assent from the film’s spectators. The latter, in this case numbering hundreds per screening per theatre watch in mesmerised unison the same formulaic spectacle of restitution enacted over and over and over again – to the point that it gets firmly embedded and ‘hard-wired’ at a neuro-cellular level deep in the collective’s unconscious by what in effect is a process of mass cultural hypnosis. In this way a properly social-fascist respect for strong measures and ready disembowelling of those who infuriate you, is instilled and made socially familiar and acceptable. A film like Scarface or the Neanderthal pleasures of WWF wrestling ‘entertainments’ on satellite TV help clarify the broad social space of this gloriously free “beat ’em to pulp” permission.
At this point representation and the public’s consumption-response are at one. Communitarian pleasure in gut spilling violence, as at a bullfight or in the Roman gladiatorial arena, obliterates distance and forges a profound bond – of disowned and projected guilt. The extremity of the spectacle deepens the intimacy of the connection and complicity of an unholy communion.
The shared reaction is to the deeply satisfying spectacle of properly vindictive violence being given free permission in what both audience and representation have agreed to accept as a ‘just’ cause – vindictive, from Latin vindicta, revenge; from vindicare, to vindicate. The gut-splitting enthusiasm, once accepted as fully just, is consensually and passionately shared amongst the film’s ‘hero’ and his viewers/fans (the latter too have merged in one). “We” can be as bad as “them”; and when the cause is good, why not?
A shared public-personal morality quietly steals into social life, gradually gains unwritten legitimacy in the mass cultural sphere, under the imprint of recreation. If something offends you, it is perfectly just and quite alright and indeed rather glamorous to ‘go ballistic’, completely ‘lose it’ (notice the menacing growls of uncontainably ‘crazy’ freestyle wrestlers on television), set off on a rampage, turn broken bottles into impromptu weapons of extermination, wreak havoc on the spot, tear off limb from offending body, hack malefactors to bits, ransack and set ablaze their damned lascivious holes and stinking drunken hideouts, lay bare their filthy whores and harems, etc., etc… Moral fascists, take your cue.
And since the Evil One throughout stays as a strategically unmarked floating signifier, ‘direct action’ lends itself as a deliciously open empty space, a will possible to be directed at any selected candidate. Almost anyone, or any social group that crosses one’s pleasure or an arbitrary boundary line (think road rage), with a little manipulation, can be hypno-suggested to qualify for the part of deserving target. A classic formula for crowd incitement in explosions of violence by the ‘emotive’ route has been set in place. Once ‘we’ are sufficiently incensed by some perceived slight that “hurts our sentiments” or “our brothers”, once “we” have been “naturally provoked” and thus ‘aroused’ to just anger in an almost orgiastic sense, then that ‘almost anyone’ clearly merits the swift instruction of unforgettable lessons taught at the point of extremity.
Given this background, the question may now be asked point blank: is it possible to trace, howsoever tenuously and provisionally, some psychological path of passage from the indelible and explosively angry ascendancy of Amitabh Bachchan in the nation’s popular imaginary, and the wider expansion and normalisation of social violence in the polity and in inter-group relations in the decades following? The brutal underlying viscerality of filmland’s Angry Young Man of the later 1970s and early 80s does ultimately beg the question – unnervingly.
It is a legitimate question. What few would seriously contest in an era of the mass circulation of absorbable media images (see Walter Benjamin The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, Harvard UP, 2008), is that popular culture’s superheroes and matinee idols do significantly and powerfully role-model behaviours, responses and popular-cultural attitudes, and help redefine the thresholds of the heroic, or the socially permissible. The point thus is moot whether, at its height, the Bachchan cult helped raise to cult status the behavioural idiom and response style of the counter-mafioso, the street lumpen and vengeful thug, but extrapolated and recycled as just and ‘heroic’ anger-with-a-cause, amidst unabashed glorification of muscle-flexing machismo.
An interesting epiphenomenon helps index how far this can potentially go. The Bachchan screen persona is rough and ready and cheerily irreverent to powerful bad guys. That’s fine, we love that, and understandably so. But notably and tellingly, we also see him, the good guy and the film’s hero – move over soft and courteous Bharat Bhushan – being just as rough and ready and cheerily irreverent with his leading ladies! And curiously we, and they, the much tickled damsels, seem to love this too: soft-violent eve-teasing behaviours, it seems, have lost their connotations of obnoxiousness and become acceptable. They may now be regarded as charmingly naughty, good fun, nearly seductive even; onscreen they often get rewarded. If we learn a few charming alpha tricks, maybe we’ll get lucky too? (Women on the whole come across in these films as objectified, marginal and incidental. Fetishised embodiments of pretty and obligingly sexy femininity, they are de-agentialised and must act out their essential function as cuddly, helpless and pleasingly dependent ‘creatures’ who exist in the film’s canvas mainly to highlight the libidinal agency and social aggression of the action hero.)
What does it mean? There is it seems something about the populist Alpha male gesticular code based on the braggadocio of masculinist viscerality that, once embraced and uncorked, resists staying within safely delimited boundaries and the behavioural code okayed by ‘nice’ conduct manuals; there simmers within in it a wider ‘license to kill’, a natural tendency to overflow into the broad arena of mass cultural attitudes and inter-agential reactions, even into a ‘romantic’ style that ‘finally gets her’.
In his nuanced argument on the cultural politics of Dilip Kumar’s films (Nehru’s Hero Dilip Kumar in the Life of India, Roli Books, 2005), Lord Megnath Desai has proposed that the thespian’s signatural screen portrayals were in tandem with progressive, enlightened and equitable, as also secular, harmonising, and societally integrative urges of Nehru’s India, post-Independence. A study that similarly undertook to examine what societal tendencies and inter-agential models Bachchan’s pugnaciously sexist-successful screen personae have helped sanction might prove instructive in a rather different direction. The findings could be disquieting.
At the heart of such an enquiry would be the following somewhat elliptical problem. What path of symbolic passage, if any, leads from the ‘justified’ but scarifyingly freewheeling avalanche of retaliatory reactions validated by the classic Big B blockbuster, to the herd-rampaging and strife torn ethos of India’s polity in the decades succeeding, marked by simmering homeostatic animus and repeat explosions of rioting, mayhem and internecine discord that continue to grip civil society in growing ripples right from the 1980s through the 1990s, culminating at last in an unprecedented and self-righteously bellicose dance of death, madness and genocidal frenzy, by wide agreement involving official assent at the highest levels, in one of corporate India’s poster states for neo-liberal economic ‘success’, in the inaugural decade of the 21st century? What is the meaning of that paradox of primordial regressionism in the very womb of a dawning post-industrial millennium, and what makes it ‘possible’?
And what line of possible connectors by way of commonality of feelings, symbolisms and invidious attitudes, leads from vicarious blood-letting in a movie theatre, to an increasedly potentiated permission for shop-looting sprees, enemy bashing hooliganism and lynch-mob vendettas in the world outside?
And even more surprisingly, even ‘shockingly’: what critical shift in the responses of ‘respectable’ segments of the community permits partial relocation of ‘street violence’ amidst a whole new social locus, expanding its ‘scenes’ beyond (just) the usual rowdy suspects in street crowds and scruffy ‘riff-raff’, to, discordantly and ‘irrationally’, slick and well-heeled enclaves of thriving city elites who strictly speaking lack for nothing, and do not ‘need’ to ransack shops from any checkmated yearning for the unreachable? In other words, how does it prove possible in what is an unimaginable ‘first-time’ in the annals of ‘fracas heroism’, for nouveau riche ‘vandals’ to now enter the stage of history riding up confidently in chauffeur driven limousines, for the fun and ‘power trip’ of it all?
Suddenly, successful, upmarket men and even comfortably accoutred women turn excited shop-looters and enthusiastic arsonists. Why? How? The answers are complex and not entirely clear, but at any rate such ‘occurrences’ bear witness to a new level of societal permeation by the increased acceptability of destructive passion let loose upon abhorred and abominated ‘Others’.
To hold a series of hit films or a motion picture star culpable for that much would surely be unsustainably grandiose and clearly unfair, even meaningless. The question though is, can those films and that star be entirely cleared beyond reasonable doubt in the matter, absolved of even a shade of suspicion in the shedding of even the tiniest micro-drop of innocent blood in that history of nightmare?
And (pushing the homology, and the doubt, one further step), what, by the same token, induces a flourishing, enormously respected and hugely adored superstar – one who likewise (and even more spectacularly than those high-heeled vandals) lacks for literally nothing in life – to step forward and volunteer all the shine-and-shimmer of his name and popularity to the ratification of the ‘successes’ of a regime that a soberingly wide cross-section of journalists, concerned citizen groups, fact-finding initiatives, voices and agencies national and international including even the highest judicial institutions in the land, have found impossible to confidently and completely exculpate from strong suspicions of involvement in the orchestration/shielding of mass murder and targeted ghettoisation of selected groups of Indian citizens?
And in that case, can the notion of ‘art for art’ or ‘economy for economy’ then be taken as wholly ‘pure’ and entirely innocent of what else surrounds, or murkily flows from – and back to – art and political economy?
Among the darkest paradoxes in all this is the tangential but sinister way in which a claimed sphere of artistic, personal or professional-commercial freedoms can entwine surreptitiously with brutally coercive denials of basic civic-social liberties, including even the right of life, to large masses of citizens. ‘Pure’ artistic activity shields its ‘freedoms’ behind an argument of form and technique, or of commercial autonomy. Can we demystify this and ask, at the very level of form and technique itself, how does something like a certain ‘hyper-somatic overkill’ school of acting, or a given aggressional ‘character type’ in superhit filmic extravaganzas, help impart sheen and glory to something as ‘unsophisticated’, ‘ugly’ and crudely ‘alien’ – in short something as ‘unartistic’ – as neofascistic terrorisation of targeted groups?
Not, clearly, by a formal declaration. The process works much more indirectly and clandestinely one might suspect, and precisely at the level of form and presentational stylistics, and of subliminal instilment of subconscious triggers and reflexes.
In Bollywood’s ‘blockbuster’ aesthetic philosophy we have an interesting understanding of histrionics. The instated discourse speaks of ‘emoting’, ‘performing’, ‘screen presence’, ‘style’ and ‘star quality’ in an actor, as though this compound of highfalutin theatrics and performative overkill (‘hamming’) combined with raw sex appeal and overpowering ‘charisma’ is what equals ‘acting’. We ask: did he ‘impress’ and ‘stun’ in that film, did he dominate and ‘outshine the competition’? In other words, did the ‘superstar’ scream the loudest, narcissistically hog all our (and the camera’s) attention, and succeed in stealing all of the limelight – perhaps by getting others’ scenes slashed in the editing room? If yes, then it’s a ‘great performance’! We definitely do not ask whether the actor had histrionic humility and negative capability – i.e. whether he quite clearly submitted himself to the demands of theme and the narrative’s necessary inner logic and demand. We certainly do not expect that he would self-abnegate and get ‘inside’ a role to the point where the ‘star’ gets ‘subsumed’ in the part, so much so that we might (nearly) forget that it’s our personal favourite up on the screen. No, we go pay our hard-earned money at the box office to see the superstar do his own ol’ particular superstar thing – the brand thing – one more time. It’s the very logic of the mass reproducible image.
Now judged by such canons, the triumphal Bachchan of his heyday was an undeniably terrific ‘performer’, one who continuously and reliably ‘super-starred’ in grandstand blockbuster extravaganzas of imposing scale and thundering plangency. These were sensational audio-visual spectacles designed to overwhelm. The moolah rolls in, and everyone is filled, just as they were meant to, with a comprehensive awe of the ‘angry’ megastar’s undefeated dominance of the theatre screens across which his tall frame menacingly looms to the accompanying chime of the box-office takings.
Correspondingly and by a strange coincidence, in ‘The Industry’ no one now wants to get on the wrong side of the Big Man. And if ever they should foolishly happen to take a misstep, then they, be they never so high, shall hurry back in double time, to mend fences with the Big Man of Filmdom – even quicker than they perhaps would to the biggest of them mobster-politicians. Wonder what that means. After all filmland is a curious place in these matters, a wonderland where a Lata Mangeshkar for instance was rightly acknowledged as a sovereign songstress, but wasn’t there always something about her unchallenged monopoly of the airwaves, that hinted in the softest of hushed and dulcet tonalities: woe betide anyone who’d be so foolish as to fall afoul of ‘Lataji’, it’s off with your head in that case, and she remains this singing saint in the bargain? One of the unwritten rules of a hagiographic mindset after all is that one simply cannot raise seriously critical questions apropos ‘personalities’ as unassailably great as “Lataji” or “Amitji”. Not everything, though, is always what it seems, not in a land of soft-focus mists and limitless star shine.
Mr. Bachchan is smart. He may have messed up one time with a major business venture, but he has since made up many times over with killing after killing in the media and politics marketplace. He is also evidently unforgiving and will not forget a slight. The Godfather Complex, so central to the mystique of the avenger personas played by the actor in his prime, slides out enigmatically from reel life to real life; even a Sonia will not be pardoned for certain past ‘problems’ of members of ‘her family’ with members of his – once the honour of ‘The Family’ has been impugned, then, as in some Mario Puzo novel, the marked person is a marked person, no matter the stakes, or the remaining options and choices in the politico-economic space. That ‘central infraction’ cannot be let go off, it will simmer and consume as a deep-seated avenger’s grudge and future pointer, determining all subsequent choices and affiliations thenceforward, no matter how far out into the wilderness of beasts this might lead.
Moreover, the performer in today’s world isn’t ever ‘just an entertainer’, he is an integral integer in a comprehensively corporatised schema of reality. And indeed the astute actor-businessman who began life as a freight broker in a Kolkata based firm is deeply sold on the idea of India Inc. The intersect of real outlook and mindset in this case is with powerful lobbies of India Inc. who for their part have become besotted with the man viewed by many as India’s Milosevic – a homegrown Milosevic and populist ‘hero’, tellingly in the aggressively ‘aggrieved’ and ‘unjustly treated’ mould, who also seems magically and mythically beyond accountability and outside the pale of the law. Considerable and multifariously overdetermined social symbolism thus inheres in Bachchan’s salesmanly enmeshment in Gujarat’s image building exercise – an enmeshment whose implications have stunned political commentator Javed Naqvi to go so far as to propose that having “recently become brand ambassador of Modi’s state — Gujarat,…film actor Amitabh Bachchan [now] is fascism’s newest recruit” (Dawn.com, 23 April, 2010). It is another matter, as Mallika Sarabhai in sharply buttonholing Bachchan in her intrepid open letter to the superstar has argued, that Gujarat’s shining successes in the economic sphere can be shown to contain reams of fabulistic conjuration and convenient fact-and-fiction jugglery with the hard economic realities.
The real caveat here, though, might be that even if the proffered economistic claims of the regime apropos Modi’s ‘Shining Gujarat’ were hypothetically to be granted some credence, the eyebrows-raising assumption of advertiser functions for Gujarat’s tainted regime by a non-Party public figure, given the totality of facts in the case, would still continue to disturb and raise deep and fundamental problems as to the mystifying social ethics of such a far-out choice – unless of course Bachchan were to make a clean breast of having became altogether and comprehensively Modised.
The choice would continue to beg the question because such salesmanship ipso facto appears to imply that economic success by itself grants some sort of amnesty from accountability on extremes of social policy, and can in effect decriminalise even such enormities as state-sponsored genocide or injecting of unabashedly divisive strains of murderous animus in the society. On such an argument, even Hitler’s Holocaust becomes OK and Just Fine, for did he not pullGermany out of the economic mess of the Depression, and didn’t Autobahns prosper and Volkswagen cars thrive in the roaring boomtime of Nazi Germany’s war economy? And, oh yes, the trains ran on time! Never mind that he also got rid of a lot of unwanted scum and social ‘excrescences’ (read Jews, Communists, Gypsies, homosexuals and ‘deviants’, liberal dissenters…the list extends) by the shortest and cheapest route to the gas chamber, made mincemeat out of civil liberties and minimal freedoms – on pain of life – and sent the world on a path to hell that ended with 55 million dead….but that needn’t detain us, it’s just a minor little irrelevance in the great annals of economic boom. Why, for a time even Jewish businessmen, not to mention American auto-industry legend Henry Ford, could see there was no need to apply the ‘extreme’ logic of “exceptionalism” (Amitava Ghosh’s delectable recent coinage in support of reasons for not boycotting things Israeli) to doing ‘business as usual’ with Nazi Germany!
At this point we may now pose a final problem in this discussion. Given the actual cultural dynamics and impactiveness of the cinematic and media image in the age of consumerised politics and the politicisation of the commodity, is it really possible to claim that let’s say something like acting is ever really “just acting”? And correspondingly: can a megastar’s “private” affairs such as his ‘strictly business’ go(o)nnections profess in good faith to operate in a ‘pure’ and value-free space of artistic-commercial freedoms that no social inquiry has any business questioning and sifting for possible meanings, motivations and macro-societal effects? In short, is there a bubble called ‘just entertainment’ or ‘merely advertising’ or ‘art and nothing but art’?
Film-maker István Szabó has touched on this tricky but important politico-artistic problem of our time in his searching meta-histrionic exploration Mephisto featuring famed German actor Klaus Maria Brandauer, dating from 1981 – around the very time Bachchan’s Angry Young Man cult peaked (though this almost certainly, if not entirely, is coincidence). A film that could have been subtitled ‘an actor’s dilemma’, Mephisto broodingly follows the slow and insidious journey by which an actor who proceeds from the stance that he is “just an actor” interested only in practising his craft – art for art – and would prefer to hold in abeyance ‘extraneous’ political value judgments when it comes to pursuing his professional life, is insidiously inveigled by this player’s philosophy into cosy bed-fellowship with the monstrous Reich.
In the end though it’s more than mere opportunism, it’s become a Faustian pact (hence the title Mephisto) – in other words, a virtual barter of one’s soul to the forces of darkness that simply wasn’t worth the paltry worldly gains it bestowed for a day, or a shimmering hour in the strobe lights. For end of the day, the spotlight’s back on you again, but rest assured this glare in your eyes inside the interrogation chamber isn’t going to be about the limelight of performer glory. As they used to say in the old European proverb, “if you plan to sup with the devil, be sure to carry a long spoon,” for that dark gent was known to have an appetite whose voracity was beyond placating. As soon as he’d be done using you and your little theatrical ‘skills’ up for his own peculiar Mephistophilian ends, he’d be sure to turn on you. Next.
But men in haste seldom look that far. There usually are more persuasive, proximate and compelling incentives and ‘reasons’ in sight.
In the short run.
Ahmer Nadeem Anwer is Associate Professor, Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi.