Kite Runners? Not Really…
Kai Po Che’s re-scripting of Ahmedabad’s and Gujarat’s history remains solipsistic and blatantly untrue
Ratna Raman Delhi
I am a consumer of both printed narrative and celluloid and often find myself in a new place of info-tainment carved out by both narrative and film. This combination of information and entertainment feeds into popular culture, endorsing beliefs and practices. Over the past many years there has been a huge publishing boom and a great swell in the reading public. While this is a matter for jubilation, the written word now jostles with the audio-visual, eyeball-grabbing film that is in a perpetual win-win situation. Nowadays, banal bestsellers piggyback on films and in their new incarnation interrogate aspects of everyday living, ideology, belief and social practice.
One writer whose books have provided inspiration for two recent films is ChetanBhagat; the Overrated Optical Mist of our times who also holds forth on caste, class, gender and the ‘idea of India’. Is Bhagat saying something new in his fiction and non-fiction that is morphed on to the films his writings inspire? Does his posturing in his non-fiction really offer liberatory solutions for India’s future?
The bitter reality is that Bhagat’s narratives begin by adding to the well-flogged pattern of male friendships that have enthralled Bollywood acolytes since the 1970s. Bollywood has consistently valorised variations on male bonding in the public sphere in India since the 1970s. First showcased by Amitabh Bachchan and Rajesh Khanna in Anand (1971), the interaction of two city professionals, a poet and a doctor, this friendship is framed by illness, death and pain. In Sholay (1975), Bachchan and Dharmendra play brawny bravehearts and battle dacoits who had fobbed off the State in rustic Rampur. A year later, Bachchan and Vinod Khanna team up in Hera Pheri (1976) as well-intentioned city slickers who fight corrupt institutions inundating the city.
The decade of the 1970s revolved around intense male bonding in all possible worlds, be it the genteel bhadralok, the rustic macho or the migrant city slick. These predominantly middle class heroes battled institutions and mapped the faultlines of friendship and societal good. Love interests remained rooted in women, amenable to the supporting roles that patriarchy cast them in, but the iconic friendships were for the male and by the male.
Newer generations of cine-goers in the 21st century, in keeping with India’s fast-growing demographics, were co-opted into understanding that friendship between two men was inadequate representation for a country with large numbers. The first year of the century marked the beginnings of trio friendships. The first male triumvirate arrived in Dil Chaahta Hai (2001). Affluent men in their 30s going on 24, with rich daddys and zero financial pressure; which meant they had all the time in the world. They holidayed in Goa and jetted off for work in idyllic Australia. One of them actually paints in exotic locales in the North.
Suddenly, middle-class ‘banality’ is replaced by the ‘exciting’ lives of these young men who only need to sort out their love interests and the generational battle between expensive holidays, designer living spaces and sea-facing offices. A more glossy variation of similar metro sexual male friendships is encountered in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobaara (2011) in which three friends (one of them from a minority community and less affluent) bond through travelling and pubbing all over Spain, living the high octane life of scuba diving, tomato pelting, skydiving and running from trained bulls.
He shouts down everybody who is not watching cricket live and is obnoxious to every family member. All this is forgivable since most Indian men are violent and boorish due to high testosterone levels
Country and community barely feature in these narratives which are unashamedly about the personal quests of the extremely elite. Three Idiots (2009) and Kai Po Che (2013), both inspired by Bhagat’s novels, purportedly attempt to stem the rot. But do they?
Bhagat’s book Five Point Someone was allegedly the book behind, Three Idiots (2009). This film tries to ground its characters in middle class origins; but a few years after the end of their education, when we catch up with the three protagonists, the unsatisfactory world of technological education and financial constraints have been flung aside. Our heroes are now affluent Indians representing ‘India Shining’.
The young man with a borrowed identity is not part of the elite group his friends belong to but is the offspring of a ‘lowly’ employee. He doubles for his master’s son and gets a privileged education. Despite his lack of social standing and an unpronounceable real name, his intrinsic intelligence allows him to become an astounding researcher and patent-holder who sets up a model school in Ladakh where all the students are brilliant application-based inventors.
Friend number two discards five years of professional training to become a world-class photographer. He successfully fakes a heart attack, causing a commercial airline, ready for take-off, to return to base. The third friend replaces poverty, chronically sick father, harried mother and dependent sister with a posh South Delhi address and a pretty wife. The fourth, their rival in college, is a usefully-employed-abroad NRI, preening over his superlative success.
In keeping with the tradition of the 1970s, Three Idiots does draw attention to the oppressive and stifling learning systems at Indian institutes of sciences. Yet, three young men from there do very well for themselves. The one who sets up an idyllic school does so in spite of social institutions, not because of them, or through them. Contrary to Bhagat’s recent directives issued through newspaper columns, these young men merely overcome personal crisis and do well for themselves, as the elite usually do. (Generating electricity through batteries and helping to deliver babies through Skype is rather limited social transformation.)
Implying that the hierarchies of class and lack of access can be bridged only by impersonation also remains problematic. Suggesting that brilliance cannot be measured by institutions and can only operate outside of them is dangerous, especially in times when the State refuses to provide necessary infrastructure and is squashing the academic autonomy of institutions of higher learning.
To cover up collective crime against a community and gloss over visceral communal hatred by focusing on three personal lives is a simplistic but deliberate writing over and writing out of real history
To this fraught new world Kai Po Che announces itself, acknowledging its debt to The Three Mistakes, and locates us in the Ahmedabad of 2001 and 2002, recording the burgeoning friendship between three young men who set up a sports shop and a cricket training institute, Sabarmati Sports, to train youngsters of promise. The reel quality of the film is superior and effectively creates a middle class ambience in Ahmedabad. The actors are brilliant and the story is fast-paced. Yet, disgruntled young men who have benefited from the system and don’t see eye to eye with parental authority, merely reiterate older clichés.
Ishan, passionate and impulsive, watches cricket, bashes up big cars, yanks violently at younger sister’s hair and hits smaller Ali. He shouts down everybody who is not watching cricket live and is obnoxious to every family member. All this is forgivable since most Indian men are violent and boorish due to high testosterone levels. Moreover, as the mistreated sister points out, Ishan’s rage does not diminish his ability to give up his life for his friends, which is a compelling excuse for brattishness and brutishness.
At number two, we have drop dead gorgeous Omi, whose Rightwing politician uncle finances the sports shop, gifts away an SUV and commands allegiance during political campaigns. Omi is also testosterone-driven with late release anger issues. He is nice to family, has not been prepped to give up his life for his friends but is the singular financier by proxy of the trio’s suburban dreams.
Govind, the third friend, is not as smart as Ishan and has less than a fourth of Omi’s good looks. His is the brain that separates him from the brawn. He is good at number-crunching and also gets the girl, while the other two have to make do with glossy pictures. Ishan’s weak-at-maths younger sister, Vidya, is slow in academics but drives in the fast lane when making a play for demure tutor Govind.
The episode of the earthquake that shook Ahmedabad in 2001 and Godhra and its bloody aftermath frame the film. The sports shop is reduced to rubble after the earthquake. Ishan rushes to rescue Ali and his immediate family in a city full of victims who are denied access to the ‘all-Hindu’ camps for earthquake victims. Omi and Ishan have a heated exchange. Ali’s family rebuilds their house with money Ishan steals from the shop, which is set up elsewhere.
Is Chetan Bhagat saying something new that is morphed on to the films? Does his posturing really offer liberatory solutions for India’s future?
Soon, the Gujarat carnage rears its ugly head. Rightwing uncle, who has lost elections, and relatives, instigates mobs and hands out wagonloads of swords to would-be killers. Ishan and Govind try to reason with Omi who has lost his parents in the killings and are stonewalled into silence by Omi’s rage. Omi participates in ‘operation vendetta’ with his uncle. The uncle is killed by a resisting victim. Omi borrows dead uncle’s gun and aims it at Ali and his father; Ishan steps in and is shot instead. Ishan dies instantly. Govind is traumatized and Omi is jailed. The film rewinds in flashback after Govind receives Omi on his release from prison after serving a life sentence.
Govind has married Ishan’s sister in the interim. They now have a son — of course, called Ishan — and the sister forgives Omi, consoling him as they watch ‘star’ Ali hitting his way through sixer fame in the first ball of international cricket. Ishan grins at the exiting audience from the hereafter. The ending thus provides closure to Ishan’s dream of turning Ali into an outstanding cricketer.
Despite Bhagat’s recent hectoring about how Number Threes only speak up for themselves and marginalize Number Fours, such as they be, Kai Po Che unremarkably does the same thing. The expansive story of personal friendship never grows beyond individual narratives. It is disturbing that the concern about an entire community’s well-being are quickly subsumed under the weight of Ali’s solo success in international cricket. Ishan’s death and Omi’s stint in prison do not provide adequate closure for all the violence, death and communal conflagration.
Since poetic licence allows for such stories, it becomes pertinent to ask why the narrative should show frames dating to the earthquake, and the Gujarat killings. Both incidents polarized communities and left septic wounds in real time that continue to blister the psyche of every right-thinking Indian. To cover up collective crime against a community and gloss over visceral communal hatred by focusing on three personal lives and the changes they underwent in this period is a simplistic but deliberate and conscious writing over and writing out of real history.
Kai Po Che’s re-scripting of Ahmedabad’s and Gujarat’s history remains solipsistic and blatantly untrue. Surely, transformative change for the larger community, inclusive justice and amelioration of the inequities that dog the lives of minority communities and women, is not part of the film’s oeuvre.