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Coffee shops, cricket and a pogrom

Kai Po Che cleverly supports the idea of the Indian nation as one that is secular in appearance, neoliberal in conduct and Hindu at the core, says Oishik Sircar

Kai Po Che (KPC)

Paisa wasool and relaxed redemption

Much has been written about the recent Hindi feature film Kai Po Che (KPC). The 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat is not central to the film's story, yet it has become what the film has been most noticed for. Critics have said that it is a watered down version of Chetan Bhagat's novel, 3 Mistakes of My Life, because the filmmakers wanted to play it safe with depictions of the pogrom; that Bhagat as the screenplay writer is now snuggling up to Modi; that it offers a reductionist version of the pogrom; that it lets Modi off the hook; that despite its drawbacks it offers a window of hope; that you cannot expect a mainstream film to do anything more; that it showcases the power of cricket to bridge differences. Most of the reviews that I have read of the film, especially those critical of its representation of the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom, have pointed to its drawbacks.

When I watched KPC, I found it to be more revelatory than lacking. It has a well-crafted story with a strong screenplay, it is cinematically appealing, and showcases commendable performances by newcomers. Unlike previous Hindi films on the 2002 pogrom like Parzania and Firaaq, which have done well mostly in festival circuits and have won critical acclaim and awards, KPC received sufficient commercial success in metropolitan cities to be called a 'Hit' at the box office. Unlike Parzania which had trouble releasing in Gujarat because theatre owners refused to screen it fearing Hindu right-wing backlash, KPC faced no such problems. The commercial release date of the film was planned for February 22, 2013, a few days before the anniversary of the fateful date in February 2002, making the release an act of memorialising both Godhra and the pogrom as causal events. That a mainstream feature film has been made 11 years after the pogrom, says something about the event's marketability.

KPC posits itself as mainstream Hindi cinema for both the thinking and fun-loving urban audience, as was apparent from the film's promotional trailers. Despite being fictive reconstructions of 'real' events, the film is historically accurate about the location of its story in Ahmedabad and of February 27, 2002 as the date when the train burning incident happened in Godhra. The film offers a clear representation of police inaction in aiding the killer mobs.

For me KPC is a rich archive for understanding middle class sentiments on the pogrom. While photographic or documentary images of 2002 have focussed on phantasmagoric violence, KPC has woven aesthetic representations of the violence with narratives of the everyday and ordinary that the middle class multiplex audience can connect with at the level of the quotidian and not the exceptional. The use of music and songs add a texture to the filmic narrative that draws the viewer into willingly suspending disbelief. And the fact that the film is a work of fiction makes the viewer comfortably escape in the darkness of a theatre the scepticism about life that she carries around at work, home and in the streets. Fictive representations of un-representable violence feed a consumptive imaginary of paisa wasool: more truths, more lies, distanced sufferings, simple failures, relaxed redemption and ultimately an indulgent apathy.

KPC strikes a chord also because it achieves a remarkable balance between challenging minor status quo ("what's a film if it does not make us think?" the regular refrain goes), but rarely disturbing the neatness of meta-structures of socio-political organisation and oppression: most importantly the nation, the market and the family. It is this carefully designed formula that makes KPC so seductive even for the 'intelligent' viewer. While it challenges and subverts several orthodoxies, it never upsets the idea of the Indian nation: one that is secular in appearance, neoliberal in conduct, Hindu at the core. Every Bollywood film that keeps this idea alive, even the ones that talk about fractures and fragments on the nation's canvas, does well at the box office.

Middle class seductions and aspirations

KPC released 11 years after the pogrom and is being watched by not only those middle classes who consumed the live feed of the pogrom in 2002 on 24/7 news channels (and thus have a visual-experiential reference), but also those who were born around that time, or were too young to understand what the violence meant. For the second lot of young people who are either on the verge of joining India's growing neoliberal workforce, or who are still in school/ college but well trained in being ideal consumptive citizens, KPC holds up both an apt reflection of their seductions and aspirations, as well as a compelling story of how practising neoliberal nationalism is the perfect antidote for tiding over all forms of adversities and emerging victorious.

Following the trend of male buddy films in new Bollywood cinema, KPC is the story of friendship between three young Hindu middle class men – Ishan, Omi and Govind – from Ahmedabad's old city area. However, unlike previous films of the similar buddy genre like Dil Chahta Hai, Rock On! or Zindagi Milegi Na Dobara – which were slick flicks primarily about rich boys spending their 'father's' money to have fun, and then getting serious about life after falling in love with a rich girl – KPC is about three regular middle class boys, living regular lives, and thinking of very regular ways of making their lives economically productive. The heart-touching regularity of it all is possibly what connects KPC to its middle class viewers and has made it commercially successful. And it is this same regularity of the characters, their beliefs and their responses to the destruction that surrounds them, that makes KPC a troubling reflection of the way the film memorialises Gujarat 2002.

Most people have watched the film, but it's necessary to re-tell the story to bring into relief my particular concerns. Ishan loves cricket, and is also a great player. But he has been unsuccessful in making it to the state team. He's hot-headed and violently over-protective of his sister, Vidya. His mother is dead, and his father is upset with him for not doing much with his life, apart from obsessively watching cricket on TV. Omi's father is the chief priest at the local temple. His maternal uncle Bittu, leader of a Hindu right-wing political party, is constantly asking him to join politics. Govind is the most rational of them all. He offers mathematics tuitions to school children, but wants to do something big in life by opening a sports academy and running this business with his friends. He requests Ishan's father for some money as initial investment. But due to Ishan's belligerent behaviour his father tears up the cheque that he promised. Omi then approaches Bittu and he provides them with a space adjoining the local temple where they start their business. Omi takes care of the store that sells sports equipment, Ishan provides cricket training to young boys, and Govind offers maths lessons at the academy and also takes care of the finances. Their life seems to be in order. They are earning well, enjoying their work, everyone is happy. They are neoliberalism's ideal responsibilised subjects: they believe in and practice private enterprise, keep nationalist pride alive through their love for cricket, and their behaviour is apolitical. And as is the case with responsibilisation, there comes a natural leap in the aspiration to accumulate: they want to move out of the small store in their locality to a big one in a mall, in a city with rapidly developing real estate. This move will require a huge amount of money, and Bittu again agrees to give them a loan, after expressing some reservations about the Muslim broker they were dealing with. They acquire the new place.

Meanwhile, the story has taken two interesting twists. First, Govind starts offering maths lessons to Divya for her up-coming board exams. And they start a romantic relationship, which Ishan is unaware of. Second, Ishan meets a cricket prodigy in a young Muslim boy from a working class family called Ali Hashmi. Ali is very shy and introverted, and hardly speaks in the film. All the three friends go to Ali's father – who runs a zari-making workshop from home, and is also a member of a secular political party – for permission to train Ali. He agrees. Ali's encounter with other Hindu boys at the sports academy reveals their prejudice against Muslims. Ishan puts in committed efforts to train Ali and to get him to play in the upcoming club-level tournament. He provides Ali with a cricketing uniform because he would come to play, stereotypically, in shalwar-kameez and a skull cap. Ishan as the secular Hindu man plays saviour. The subject requiring saving is Ali, a Muslim. As a critic has asked: "Would the success of Hashmi be possible without the benevolence of Ishan?"

The happy narrative of entrepreneurial success now meets with two blows, which then snowball into a rift between the three friends, and then an irreversible tragedy. First is the 2001 Bhuj earthquake. Ishan had become very close to Ali and his family. After the earthquake, he brings a large group of displaced Muslims from Ali's community to the relief camp for Hindus run by Bittu's political party. This indicates the discrimination Muslims faced in accessing relief after the earthquake. Omi along with other party members says they cannot provide for them because they are not "our people." This results in a scuffle between Omi and Ishaan, and they stop speaking to each other.

The earthquake also affected their business badly. The building in which they had acquired the new store had collapsed, and that psychologically devastated Govind. However, they return to the old store in their locality and start working hard to rebuild the business. What passes as hard work and entrepreneurial commitment is not just that but also the social capital they possessed because of their religion, caste and class and the political patronage they benefited from. At this time Govind finds out that whatever money they were left with has gone. Ishaan, in another act of charity, had given that away to Ali's family to rehabilitate them. The relationship between the three friends is on tenterhooks now. Divya comes in to convince Ishaan to make up with Omi. He tries, but fails. But what brings them together again is nationalist pride in India winning a cricket match against Australia.

The second crisis is the 2002 pogrom. Bittu, after losing the local elections, is campaigning hard for the upcoming state elections. Omi reluctantly joins the party and is active in campaigning. As part of these efforts Bittu decides to send a group of Hindus to Ayodhya for kar seva to build the Ram temple, and asks Omi to convince his parents to go as well. It is the train in which his parents would return from Ayodhya that'll get burnt at Godhra. The film identifies the Godhra burning incident as the reason for attacks on Muslims, re-stating the factually inaccurate action-reaction story. Post the burning the right-wing political party is shown organising for pratikriya. Ishan reaches Ali's place to 'rescue' them, but Ali's father declines his help because he has to be there for the other Muslim families who have taken refuge in his house. Ishan asks Govind to come over as well, and in the middle of this tense situation he comes to know of Govind's relationship with Divya (by reading an SMS on Govind's mobile), and beats him up. His secular benevolence towards Ali and his patriarchal protective attitude towards his sister are in fact two sides of the same coin, and is reflective of a pretty insidious middle class liberal mindset. In the meantime Omi reaches Ali's house with Bittu and a huge mob wielding arms. The mob breaks into their house and starts killing the many others who had sought refuge there. Bittu attacks Ali's father. The fight results in Bittu being shot dead. Omi chases Ali's father, Ishan intervenes, and when Omi shoots, the bullet hits Ishan.

Omi serves prison time for killing Ishan. He is released from prison several years later, a broken man. Govind comes to receive him in a large car. They drive on lovely roads (the film also opened with a driving-over-smooth-roads scene) and through scenic locales, take a break at a nice coffee shop, and then arrive at a huge stadium, flanked by a huge factory, where Ali, part of the Indian cricket team, is making his international debut. Govind introduces Omi to his son, who he has named Ishan. Govind had married Ishan's sister. He's now a very successful businessman. The small boy hands Omi the Indian flag. In the stadium Omi meets Divya and breaks down. The closing scene shows Ali hitting a perfect cover drive boundary, the exact shot that Ishan had trained him in. The scene fades in and out with Ishan's smiling face, memorialising his sacrifice that has made Ali what he is today.

Law, capital and nation

KPC is paradigmatic of how secular law and capital work to keep the affects of the nation alive. The nation manifests itself in the lives of people in affective ways through which it commands loyalty. Whenever the neatness of the idea and image of the nation meets with an accident, law comes in to order the situation and decide what or who gets labelled lawless. Capital comes in the form of hypervisibilised (Hindu) culture, heritage, unity, virility and now in the avatar of neoliberalism to do the work of reordering time (by putting it on the progressive scales of modernity and developmentalism) and disciplining memories of trauma (by replacing the wounded 'old' nation with the antiseptic 'new' one). Secular law and capital are part of a sophisticated assemblage of circular repetition where they operate as the speech of the nation: through it the nation is heard and recognised. The nation and its relations with and between peoples, institutions and ideas become intelligible through the speech of the law and the performance of capital.

In KPC, the law recognises Omi as lawless and thus in need of incarceration and reformation. In the eyes of the audience the legal machinery has played its role, and faith in the law is restored despite the thousands killed. The successful performance of the legal process displaces concerns about state accountability. Legal culpability is privatised, and is singularly focused on Omi. We see this in actual operation as well through the Naroda Patiya and Ode convictions. Modi's initial decision to seek the death penalty for Maya Kodnani, Babu Bajrangi and other Hindu right-wing leaders convicted by the court might rile other Hindutva political partices like the Shiv Sena, and it might also alert human rights activists to how this strategy will deflect attention from Modi's own culpability. But it strengthens the capital punishment-loving middle class's belief in the judiciary, their faith in Modi's commitment not only to governance and development, but also in the rule of law.The audience, however, is happy for Omi not being sent to the gallows in the film, because his act was merely an accident. Interestingly, Modi's recent decision to put the death penalty on hold for seeking legal opinion from the advocate general will make the secular middle classes deify him further for this ostensibly attests to his belief in due process.

Simultaneously, the film shows us neoliberal capital re-inscribing the nation and decorating it with smooth roads, coffee shops, huge stadiums, entrepreneurial success, and cricket. KPC does not work to erase memories of 2002; in fact, it gives us a glimpse into how neoliberal nationalism engages in the practice of memorialisation of an event of mass atrocity. Whose death does the film mourn? It's Ishan's: the Hindu who was killed (by another Hindu) trying to help Muslims and keep secularism alive. Ali seems to have no reason to deal with any trauma. He has emerged unscathed, without a trace of memory of what happened. We don't know where his family is, or what happened to them. We are happy about the secular credentials of the Indian cricket team, and that a talented Muslim now plays for India, despite experiencing the pogrom and witnessing death and destruction. We are happy that Govind is married, has a son, and because of his business sense, is so successful. These are success stories worthy of celebration, we are told. It is only Omi's trauma which matters. And who comes to soothe Omi's soul? The aspirational figure of Govind's child, handing him an Indian flag. The innocent gesture of the child is the seductive cue for the audience to feel buoyant about the jubilant nation. The figure of the child has for long been a symbol of both nationalist desire and consumptive reason.

It doesn't really matter whether it was a pogrom or an earthquake. Neoliberal nationalism regularises any tragedy, and spectacularises how following the script of private enterprise, responsibilisation and accumulative aspiration will ultimately make us immune to such interruptions and make the nation unshakeable. The death and destruction is ordinary damage and should only remain sympathetic markers of the nation's glorious progress. All will be subsumed within the narrative of neoliberal nationalist developmentalism.

Innocence and impotence

KPC's reconstructions of the pogrom are disturbing and reassuring at the same time. The imagery of violence bothers us, but the Hinduness of the nation (passed off as secularism) is cause for comfort. Middle class, liberal and secular engagement with the pogrom have also progressed on a similar chronological trajectory. We've talked about justice, then some more about people's resilience, and now all our talk is about developmentalism. KPC does not make us forget 2002, rather it allows us a disturbingly honest glimpse into the middle class mind which wants to remember the pogrom through stories of entrepreneurial success, good roads, coffee shops, huge stadiums and cricket. These help us keep our faith in the neoliberal nation, and in capital and law as the foundations of the scaffolding that enables continuous mending of the fractured nation.

Images of suffering from 2002 in photos or films have elicited three kinds of middle class responses: we are either happy about what happened to Muslims (because they deserve it), or we are repulsed by them (too much gore is not good for our happy lives), or it generates pity. Pity is the closest that the elite and middle classes have come to expressing some sentiment of attachment to the victim-survivors of 2002. This sentiment does not include feelings of injustice done to Muslims, rather these have exacerbated identitarian difference and entrenched a deeper belief in the need for Muslim assimilation into majority ways of living and behaving. KPC is a convenient extension of the politics of pity, and this is where its appeal lies. It allows the audience to cry, but not ask political questions about justice. We emerge with a sympathetic heart on watching the film, but as Susan Sontag has written about the distanced consumption of images of suffering experienced by 'the other': "So far as we feel sympathy we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Sympathy is an inappropriate response. It proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence."
Last week a public interest litigation was filed in the Gujarat High Court demanding that KPC's censor clearance be cancelled. The petitioner, one Advocate Bhautik Bhatt, takes issue with the representation of the 2002 violence in the film. When I saw the news headline – 'PIL against Kai Po Che for "biased" portrayal of Gujarat riots' – I thought this must be a petition driven by secular middle class sympathy. On reading the report, of course, I figured that the petitioner was unhappy that the film depicted the pogrom "with biased intention and half-heartedly only with a view to defaming a particular group of people belonging to Hindu community." The book by Chetan Bhagat, the film's publicity and trailers, and even the release did not attract any attention from Hindu right-wing parties, let alone the BJP and Modi. It was left-wing critics who slammed the film for its bias in favour of Hindus, and for not depicting the pogrom in all its nuances. In fact, Bhagat and the film's director Abhishek Kapoor have had to make public statements distancing themselves from Modi, and stating that the film is not Modi propaganda to portray their secular credentials. And this petition claims that it's the other way around. I don't think the petition stands a chance in court. It cannot be challenged on its reconstruction of facts, because the film does not make any claim regarding historical accuracy. It is a work of fiction, we are told.

Yet, it's interesting that the same sequence of fictive events in the film are considered a watered-down version of the 'real' pogrom by some, and by those like Bhatt (and I am sure there are many) as being biased against Hindus. This opens up a contestation about truth claims in the realm of the fictive. And the fictive is indeed the most affective of fields that enables the Indian nation to constantly reproduce itself as secular in appearance, neoliberal in conduct and Hindu to the core. The fictive is also caressingly regulatory: the majoritarian imaginations of nation that it conjures and propagates are what ultimately receive judicial, political and even aesthetic imprimatur. The critics of KPC – both groups that point at the film's pro and anti-Hindu bias – are fighting a battle about what story the fiction of the Indian nation should remember and tell. Our legal investments in finding the truth about the pogrom keep alive faith in the fictive nation. And until the fiction of the misogynist Hinduness of the neoliberal nation thrives, as the Chinese curse goes, we'll continue to live in interesting times.

(The author is an academic currently based in Melbourne researching the interactions between law and memory in the context of the 2002 pogrom.)

Infochange News & Features, May 2013