The NRI saviour arriving to purge his uncivilised motherland of its filth is becoming a bit too queasy in Bollywood
Anirban Bandyopadhyay Delhi
Surely, Bollywood movies reflect changing socio-economic trends in India. A clever new Hindi movie called Phas Gaye Re Obama does the same. It has been highly praised by the English media as an instance of a resurgent new Bollywood. I have seen a good number of such movies to begin to think seriously about a new trend informing such movies, namely the more resourceful NRI intervening in Indian affairs, exposing its flaws and then returning to his adopted homeland.
The NRI has been a regular feature in Bollywood movies since at least the mid-1990s. Till recently, he (or she) came to India only when he fell in love or had to get married, otherwise operating from the adopted homeland where the Indian filmmaker went to film his exploits. Occasionally, he came and changed the rotting system here for the better, getting married to a village belle and staying over for good, such as in Virasat or Sarkar. Of late, he has been coming only as a temporary visitor, to purge the system or make better use of it, before returning to the land of his clinical dreams, wealth, success, achievement. It now seems as though we resident Indians 'have no idea' how to resolve our troubles - until the NRI descends with a bouquet of bright ideas or schemes.
Bollywood captures this moment of NRI intervention, quite like an elder in transit, putting in place two warring youngsters, before resuming his regular duties. The NRI protagonist does not come here entirely on his own volition. A crisis, either here or in his foreign home, forces his temporary visit among 'the less civilised', compelling him to treat this brief sojourn as an exile. Banished from his heaven by accident, or fate, he bravely goes about bettering his native earth, earning his lost merit back again, before being called back to the Western dreamland once again. Alternatively, he may be seen as the Kalki avatar, the tenth and last incarnation of Vishnu, charged with cleansing the earth of all irreligiosity, refilling it with NRI righteousness all over again.
Two successful recent movies point to this phenomenon -Rajneeti and Phas Gaye Re Obama. In both cases, the Indian characters are portrayed as cunning, ruthless, corrupt, venal, violent, coward, or at best clueless dimwits, to say nothing about primitive aborigines. Caught in a crisis, they know little better than killing each other or threatening to do so. Scratch the narrative surface, and you would find the uncivilised average Indian under the thrall of a canny politician fattening himself off with their money and labour, but keeping them under a condition of perpetual emasculation to serve his own vested interests. Enters the NRI savior, to lift 'the uncivilised Indian' out of the evil politicians' thrall.
The twist in the story comes only after a male NRI makes his entry. He is as human as his native counterparts, except that he is more intelligent and knows better how to manipulate the system to his and everyone else's ostensible advantage. Where does this enhanced, superior intelligence, uncanny, non-resident cunning, or high-moral-ground civilisation, come from?
In Rajneeti, the main protagonist (Ranbir Kapoor), is a member of a family of wily, power-hungry politicians who is sent abroad to pursue higher academics. Subtextual Violence in Victorian Poetry in the 19th century: that's his PhD topic. He returns to find two branches of his family in a bloody war over the power inheritance following the death of the politician-patriarch. More important than the crude similarity to the Mahabharata is the change in the characterisation of Arjuna, as it were. He is not taught his politics by a local guru; he is sent abroad, like generations of Indians before him. Eventually, he gets down to the dirty, cold-blooded business of hatching conspiracies and ordering murders, until all opposition is eliminated.
In the bargain, he has to offer his childhood sweetheart (who is obsessed with him) as bride to his elder brother and loses his foreign girlfriend and the brother in a blast designed originally to kill him. At the end, he safely restores the political power inheritance to his sweetheart/widow sister-in-law, slated now to take over as the chief minister of this Hindi heartland province. Mission accomplished, our unsmiling protagonist flies back to his safe academic haven in the West.
It is this vilayat-returned Indian taking charge of the politics and economy of his mother country in order to purge it of all impurities that these new films portray as their main protagonist. He is without exception a young or early-middle-aged male, and hails often from a family with strong connections with the village, either in the form of large, opulent, feudal mansion and/or a large constituency of subjects. I have no issues with films like Swadesh or Paa. What does bother me is the arrival and departure of the NRI as a consultant expert, always in transit, for whom this mission is to cleanse his impure motherland; this is at best an accidental site visit.
In Phas Gaye Re Obama, you have a recession-hit NRI businessman coming to India to sell his ancestral village mansion, who is then kidnapped by an equally recession-impoverished local kidnapping racket. The kidnapping business here is shown to be remarkably organised, with a minister aspiring to be the next chief minister running the largest kidnapping business in the province. He runs his outfit like a supermarket chain, guaranteeing no kidnapping for a whole year once a certain family has paid up the ransom and taken the acknowledgement receipt.
The narrative shows how the absentee NRI resents leaving his native land as a deposit to the malevolent politician. A setback at his karmbhumi suddenly wakes him up to the promise his native deposit holds, he returns to encash it, only to find its values eroded significantly by the corrupt politician who lords over even the criminals. Past his initial surprise, he quickly sets about his project of disciplining the politician with some help from the criminals turned destitute via the recession. Mission accomplished, he too flies off to his safe commercial, capitalist haven in the Western kingdom of dreams.
What is particularly birksome is the protagonist's arrival and departure like a consultant, hired for a specific project and departing soon after the project targets are achieved. A consultant is an itinerant, jet-setting expert, flying from one corner of the globe to another, forming a subsidiary alliance with local operators, fixing things. This alliance brings a great deal of respect to local participants, especially in relation to their local clients. However, the actual brains that run the projects are those of the consultants, for they are supposed to know their technical expertise better. A particularly intelligent local lad is occasionally patted on the back too, but always patronisingly. A highly praised recent movie that has no NRI protagonist per se, Peepli Live, also falls under this category. Replace the NRI with sassy urban journalists - and you would know what I mean.