From the stage of adolescence where I felt an ‘art’ film spoiled my Sunday in the years of Doordarshan to the stage of early youth where I thoroughly enjoyed them, I have reached the phase where I can assess a film of that genre dispassionately. Or so I believe. Last night I caught up with a critically acclaimed film that was released 7 years ago: Udaan. Much as I had wanted to see it in 2010, my foray into activism kept me away from the theatre that year. On Star Gold Select HD, while scenes like dragging a trunk for minutes on end to create a sense of ‘reality’ did not induce monotony as it would in my years as a teen, the story left me wondering what the filmmaker wanted to convey to the audience.
Udaan? Flight? What flight? I thought initially that the young protagonist who wanted to be a poet would finally succeed in realising his dream, forcing his father who wanted to see an engineer in him on the knees. Nope! That wasn’t the story.
A wayward son comes home to an abusive father. The son is so brash, he hits his father even before the plot has thickened enough for us to empathise with him. Being a rebel forever, somebody like me should not have found it atrocious if the parent was really that awful. But no! I couldn’t develop even pity for the brat.
Finally, the guy flees the scene with his much younger step-brother and the film ends. The Udaan to an uncertain future!
This generation wouldn’t know where the genre comes from. Whereas in the 1950s, a brilliant advertisement professional thought, and rightly so, that films should not be about song-and-dance sequences, and we got Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, no businessman was so impressed that he would invest in this crop of films. So, like a feudal lord reminiscent of a vassal of Europe or a zamindar/navvab of India, the most socialist government the country has ever had — that of Indira Gandhi — stepped in for the patronage of the arts. State sponsorship in the form of the National Film Development Corporation emerged in the year of the Emergency, 1975. On the business scene, Indira Gandhi had taken over the private Tata Airlines to turn it into the white elephant that is Indian Airlines-turned-Air India today (while also usurping several private insurance companies). On the film scene, she had taken over BK Karanjia’s Film Finance Corporation.
Replicating their model of taking over institutions for a cultural domination over India, which they had begun in the education sector in 1969 via Nurul Hasan when the Goongi Gudiya needed their support for her faction of the split Congress, the communists soon captured the NFDC. As such, Karanjia had a liking for low-budget films that told riveting tales. While retaining him as the chairman of the film financing body, now state-owned, the leftists exploited his soft corner for modesty the way they took advantage of Bengali austerity almost simultaneously to turn the eastern State into a communist den. It cannot be a mere coincidence that the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front began ruling Bengal in 1977 while parallel cinema surfaced prominently in the 1980s, telling the people that their country was far more depressing than what they had come to terms with. It couldn’t again have been a coincidence that the films of Mrinal Sen and Govind Nihalani sought to fight capitalism; Shyam Bengal’s portrayed the decadence of values under feudalism; Buddhadeb Dasgupta virtually said yeh aazaadi jhooti hai through his actors, and both Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil hailed from self-proclaimed communist-socialist families while Girish Karnad goes around saying even today that it’s not his problem if the right wing does not have artistes of their calibre.
One may recall that the 1980s were the heydays of arthouse cinema. While, thankfully, the plots of Indian films on a parallel track had turned plausible, they created an impression that nothing was right under our system of governance that was rotting. The assessment was correct, no doubt. One wondered what these socialists were complaining about, as socialism was what they had wanted and socialism was what they had got. Where the means of production and distribution alike are fiefs of the state, run by a government whose employees are assured of fixed incomes with no threat of termination regardless of their performance, what better results were they expecting?
But the economics of it was government’s job. These filmmakers were part of the intellectual circle whose agenda was quite like the British colonialists: make Indians lose a sense of pride in their nation by projecting their civilisation and culture in poor light. Ergo, if a historian told us that a war between a Hindu and a Muslim commander would always, or mostly, end in the defeat of the Hindu, a filmmaker should deal with the present, telling us that Indian employers do not pay their employees and that Indian husbands rape their wives when the woman cannot find some scope in the script to be attacked outside her house by other male predators. That was then.
Udaan lacks credibility because the backdrop is Jamshedpur in post-liberalisation India. In the current epoch, neither are the likes of Bishop Cotton School of Shimla (from where the ‘hero’ is expelled for unruly conduct) the most coveted for parents to send their wards to nor does an industrial township have a scarcity of choices of employment (which frustrates the father). Unless producers Sanjay Singh, Anurag Kashyap and Ronnie Screwvala and director Vikramaditya Motwane were communists caught in a time warp, there wasn’t reason enough for this plot featuring a disgruntled factory worker in a year of the Commonwealth Games scandal of extravaganza.
The sociology in the intervening period has changed too. Children are no longer as obedient as they were in the last century. But they still do not hit their parents except in some rare households where no elder put his foot down in the nick of time when the child was a toddler showing early tendencies of violence. Here, the parent was such a domineering bully, chances were higher that the motherless child would be further intimidated and cowed down. But the communist filmmaker makes him hit his father barely a day after he reaches home, rusticated from school.
The director was apparently not happy by merely showing the son smoking and drinking — the extent to which rebels without a cause that we used to be in college could relate to in the central character. When the father asks the son whether the latter had had some experience of sex, too, the teenager responds in the negative. That does not retain a vestige of orthodoxy or inhibition in the son. The audience is already shocked hearing a father pose this question to a son who has not yet come of age.
Challenging the institution called home or family isn’t the only sign of the filmmaker’s communism, though. He makes the 17-year-old protagonist compose poems that don’t rhyme — the type you find student union leaders reciting on university campuses. The boy is purportedly a better narrator of stories who can captivate doctors, nurses and patients in a hospital where his step-brother is admitted after being thrashed by the father. The audience wouldn’t know. Unlike his ‘poems’ that we can hear fully, his stories are not wholly audible. A background score takes over, suppressing his voice when he has hardly finished a paragraph.
Udaan is not an NFDC-sponsored film, of course. This approach to making films is nevertheless living the legacy of that era. Mercifully, we do not need to escape from mainstream cinema to look for plausibility any more. What had begun tentatively as “crossover” films in the 1990s is now the mainstream. The formula of revenge had run its course long before the ‘angry young man’, Amitabh Bachchan, turned a happy old fella in the discourse of the tinsel town. The formula that Indians are perforce ugly and dejected, living in poorly lit homes and fighting a losing battle against an oppressor that manifests as an individual or the state will not work either.
I recollected that Udaan was praised profusely in the year that it was released. I had forgotten the name of the reviewers. I found the most prominent ones here. I could rationalise the fact that critics devoted wholly to films may be a tad removed from ideology. What disturbs me about today’s journalism is that even such peers who are political are oblivious to the fact that nothing other than socialism ruined India. What is more surprising is the fact that they have forgotten their childhood. Our parents wanted us to be engineers or doctors indeed, but was the generation gap addressed in the manner the characters played by Rajat Barmecha and Ronit Roy took recourse to in Udaan?