Kai Po Che and the politics of appeasement and reconciliation – Iram Ghufran

 

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Kai Po Che [2013] can be described as a wholesome cinematic experience. Directed
by Abhishek Kapoor, based on the novel – ‘The Three Mistakes of My Life’ by
Chetan Bhagat, the film is a tragic coming of age story with a silver lining.
Set in Ahmedabad during the years 2000-02, the film follows the lives of three
friends – Ishaan, Govind and Omi and their desire to own a successful business
and move out of a middle class rut. The film revolves around their trials and
travails as they set up a sports goods business and a cricket coaching academy,
and their encounter with the Muslim world through Ali, Ishaan’s talented
cricketing protégé. The film gradually builds to a climax set during the Gujarat
genocide of Muslims during February -March 2002.
For plot, read- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kai_Po_Che!#Plot

Kai
Po Che is a very slick film, beautifully shot and edited. It has some wonderful
performances by the lead actors, and some very touching moments. Some of the
other elements that worked for me were that there are no meaningless rhetorical
speeches on Hindu- Muslim bhai- chara, the film sends a very strong message for
non- violence, it produces some very endearing and believable characters like
Omi’s father – a Hindu non-communal temple priest, Vidya, Ishaan’s sister – a
vivacious Gujarati girl who doesn’t hesitate to make the first move with a man
she likes, and then of course Ali- the quiet teenager with a talent for
sports.

Despite all that’s going for it, I do find Kai Po Che a
problematic film and my problem lies beyond story/ script/ narrative structure
and even representational/ identity politics. In fact in some ways the film does
rather well in its depiction of the minority (Muslim) community. The Muslims are
clearly affiliated with the secular/ Gandhian political party, Muslims are not
shown wielding weapons of any kind in the film – in fact the general
helplessness of Ali’s father when their house is attacked by a right wing Hindu
mob is very moving. It is the Hindu’s who are shown to make the first move –
whether it is the pulling down of Ali’s pajama in the playground by a bunch of
bullies, or the general apathy and refusal of aid to Muslims after the
earthquake. It was a relief to not see any visuals of meat shops, men and women
constantly performing namaz, or lots of burqa wearing women. In fact one could
even ignore the ever-present skull caps.

So, an acquaintance asked – What
is your problem with this film? Her positioning that the film takes the ‘issue’
of the Gujarat genocide head on and tackles it so gently and firmly that we
should be grateful that Kai Po Che was ever made, leaves me with bile in my
throat. Perhaps the problem lies less with the film – but more with this reading
of the film. Kai Po Che produces a white-washed version of the story of the
Gujarat genocide of 2002 and I am shocked at how easily this acquaintance and
some people are lauding this film for its liberal, secular politics. I will not
be surprised if Kai Po Che is India’s official entry to the Oscars. In the
following paragraphs, I will not raise the question of Chetan Bhagat’s
affiliation with Narendra Modi, nor will I speculate why Parzania [2007] could
not be released in Gujarat, while Kai Po Che was not only released, but parts of
it were shot in Narendra Modi’s village.

The problem with this film is
that it makes the Gujarat pogrom of 2002 palatable to the audience. The genocide
consumed in a fifteen minute climax, where in the end the empathy is not even
with the ‘victims’. In fact new ‘victims’ are produced – Ishaan, who sacrifices
his life for Ali, Omi, who has already lost his parents, now inadvertently ends
up killing his best friend and spends 10 years in jail, Govind who loses his
friend and Vidya who loses her brother. What is Ali’s loss? Does the film
provide a reflective moment for that?

 

 

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A key ‘issue’ with the film is that
the violence perpetrated on the Muslims is directly linked to the train tragedy
at Godhra station in which about 60 people died. The complexity of those ‘links’
and the subsequent inquiries into the Sabarmati Express fire are not something
that the filmmaker even hints at. We all agree that the train fire at Godhra
station was a very unfortunate episode, but we also know that the issue is much
more complicated. I am sure that the filmmaking team had done thorough research
into this, but they chose the State line. They choose expediency over
honesty.
For a report in Tehelka –
http://tehelka.com/burn-after-reading/

Many people are too grateful
that a ‘mainstream Hindi film has shown whatever small slice of what happened
with a remarkable degree of honesty’. Perhaps mainstream was not ready to tackle
the complexity of  the Godhra tragedy, or the Gujarat genocide. Just because it
is mainstream, we cannot let our critical faculties be swayed.

In Kai Po
Che, the violence against the Muslims is pitched as a spontaneous flare-up
because allegedly the Muslims of Godhra torched the Sabarmati Express in which
many innocent people died, including Omi’s parents. The film depicts Omi’s rage
against the Muslims, his absolute belief that it was the Muslims who killed his
parents, and hence the justification for attacking the Muslims in Ahmedabad.
The film condemns Omi’s violence. Indeed it asks Omi to be a better person. But
the easy cause – effect relation between Godhra and the Gujarat pogrom and the
simplistic relationship between action and reaction that the film perpetuates is
unacceptable to me. No right thinking person – the filmmakers, critics, audience
(and I presume most of the audience of this film is right-thinking) will say
that violence is a good thing, but in the film, the characters are seemingly
forgiving of flare-ups, spontaneous outbursts of youth, and “mistakes” that take
on the shape of mass killings, rapes, loot and destruction of
property.

The film successfully orchestrates empathy with the three
friends – All emotion is attributed to Ishaan, Govind and Omi. Does the film
generate empathy with the real ‘victims’ of the Gujarat genocide? Or even a
fictional Ali? Can we think about the ‘victims’ – the anonymous Muslims who
served as props for the drama in Kai Po Che to be played out; and can we think
about Ali, the good Muslim, the foot soldier of Indian secularism and democracy
scoring winning runs under the able coaching and guidance of a good Hindu? And
what happened to Ali’s family?

We forget the brutality of this
pre-planned violence; we even forget that it was pre-planned. The voter lists,
school and college admission registers, municipality records of property
ownership, the large cache of arms available to the mobs – no allusion to any of
this in this film. The violence on the Muslims is not abhorrent any more.
Ishaan’s death is. The film has a very clear message. It has been 10 years… time
to forgive, forget and move on. In fact, Narendra Modi himself has recently said
that his “idea of secularism is “India First” and people will forgive
“mistakes” of a government if it serves them well.”  Yes, many people have short
memories; many have forgiven Maken, Tytler and Co for 1984, is it now time for
Gujarat?

I do understand that on board are important issues of
forgiveness and reconciliation vis a vis the Gujarat violence. But whose
forgiveness is being asked for? The film ends with a reconciliation among the
Hindus. Vidya, Ishaan’s ‘progressive’ sister married to the apolitical and
successful businessman (Govind), forgives Omi (for his mistake in killing
Ishaan). Ali hits a six in the last couple of minutes of the film. His father
and mother can nowhere to be seen in the stadium – are they back in Juhapura or
in a camp?

 

 

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Whether the problem of Kai Po Che be attributed to political
naivety of the creators of the film or to very suave management of the cinematic
form, the problem remains. The history writing of Kai Po Che is unacceptable.
Its secular pretensions are not without doubt. Redemption has to come with
justice. To be appeased with a heart-moving tale of guilt and redemption without
looking at the big picture is foolhardy to say the least.

(First Published in Pharaat. http://pharaat.blogspot.in/2013/03/kai-po-che-and-politics-of-appeasement.html)

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