A critique that condemns without comprehension.
It is difficult to find the correct tone for this response to Siriyavan Anand’s “Eating with our fingers, watching Hindi cinema and consuming cricket” (Himal March 2002). There are points he makes that I agree with entirely, and the validity and genuineness of his overall concern are quite evidently unquestionable. Yet, there is so much in his article, both about the film and about the sport, that does not quite measure up to the standards of rigour that a purposive politics must command. To make matters worse, there are factual inaccuracies. But most of all, his argument is politically naive if not downright irresponsible.
Casual solecisms on irrelevant issues detract from the merits of Anand’s more serious concerns. There are in his article many statements whose import and relevance have not been made adequately clear. Take, for example, some of his remarks about cricket and sports in India. He laments that cricket is ‘uninternational’, that “one half of the population, women, are effectively excluded” from playing it, and that “in a nation of one billion only 14 can make it to the national team”. Now, what is “uninternational”? If a dozen nations play a sport, then it surely is international, if international is what we are talking about. Cricket has limited international reach, yes. These limits are determined by the limits of the British colonial empire, yes. It is not a global sport, yes. But international it still is. And surely, the international reach or otherwise of a sport need not be taken as reflection of its intrinsic worth: kabaddi is a case in point. Regarding women being excluded from cricket, strictly speaking that is not correct. But even if one does not read the statement literally, is not that even more the case with football, the one genuinely global team sport? What about boxing, the sport that has been an important medium of black assertion? And that only 14 make it to the national side cannot be reason for criticism, surely: national teams in any sport are of finite size and constitute only a tiny fragment of a country’s population. The more relevant point is whether, at least in theory, the best available talent in the country is chosen for inclusion in a team of six or eight or 14 as the case may be. Perhaps I am nitpicking. But political critiques should be precise.
Anand argues that cricket is “inherently brahmanical”. Not simply that it is an upper-caste dominated sport, but that in its neglect of the body, it is inherently brahmanical. Fitness in sport is no doubt an absolute value. The point is that its form will vary according to the relevance to the sport in question, depending as it does on the demands the sport makes on the particular aspect of the physique that is intended to be taxed. The physique and fitness demanded of a tennis player is very different from that demanded of a footballer, which again is very different from that of a boxer. In track events, a sprinter’s fitness is different from that of a middle distance runner, not to talk of the marathon runner. This is obvious.
But what about cricket? Wicketkeeping is reportedly among the most physically demanding specialisations in international sport, as is fast bowling. Spin bowlers and batsmen need their own kind of fitness if they have to be any good. Perhaps Anand is operating with a Graeco-Roman conception of the physique as interpreted by the classicists of Renaissance Europe, particularly its sculptors. Where does that leave Sumo wrestling, whose mysteries I have yet to penetrate, but which quite clearly is a sport for its many enthusiasts, even if to many others the fight seems to be over almost before it starts and the physical appearance of the wrestlers does not conform to the aesthetic idea of the fit body that Anand has in mind?
When Anand argues that cricket is upper-caste dominated, he is more on track. It is undeniable that dalits have not featured in the Indian test squad. It is also very likely that a caste bias operates in the selection process of teams all the way from the school to the test levels. (Though as an aside, we may note that the two Bombay batsmen that Anand characterises as brahmans, Gavaskar and Tendulkar, are actually saraswats, a subcaste that eats meat, though not beef, and sees itself as being distinct from brahmans. Also, it would be interesting to find out the original caste of the Christian cricketers Chandu Borde, ex-India captain and currently chairman of selectors, and Kiran More, ex-India wicketkeeper.) Yet, curiously, for Anand upper-caste domination has no class character. Thus, the reason for the lack of lower caste sporting excellence, we are told, is to be found not in poverty, not in the lack of a balanced diet, not in the lack of basic training facilities, and so on, but in the in-breeding enforced by the caste system which results in stunted bodies!
And even on this point, Anand is probably wrong. I am no expert in these matters, but a colleague has this to say: “Hindu conjugal laws take great pains to keep marriage outside closed pools of blood and lineage by insisting on two criteria of separation, namely that though marriage must happen within caste and subcaste confines, not just the gotra but more crucially the sapinda must be different (just the single criterion of gotra can cause the marriage to stray back into the ‘undesirable’ zone of conjugal proximity and cause inbred blood lines)”. In any case, my feeling is that in a Subcontinent that has made something of a specialisation of proliferating its numbers, the size of castes and subcastes are probably large enough to prevent sanguinary inbreeding of the kind that is reputed to cause congenital deviations. This is not a defence of Hinduism’s conjugal system or its form of social organisation, just a point of rigour concerning inbreeding and physical capacities. Anand does not do much service to Ambedkar by quoting him outside the context of his times.
But what about the film itself? “Lagaan is being celebrated”, Anand informs us, “by secularists, nationalists, subalternists, leftists, pseudo-secularists, BJPites, academics, critics and filmgoers alike.” This is simply not true. The Hindutva brigade has not hailed the film. A friend reports that in her undergraduate class, her students, coming as they do from upper-caste, middleclass, conservative backgrounds with ideological sympathies for Hindutva, criticised the film for appeasing dalits and the minorities. And the Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarti Parishad’s journal Chhatrashakti published, in July 2001, an article that hailed Gadar and criticised Lagaan for their respective notions of nationalism: Lagaan, it said, is “jingoistic”, while Gadar is “non-partisan”. In his enthusiasm to run down the film, Anand, by lumping them with the rest, does the fascists great service.
Anand characterises Lagaan as being a purana, which has “scant regard for historicity”. Yet what is ahistorical is Anand’s critique. Lagaan is a commercial Hindi film. A fair critique of Lagaan cannot proceed from within the confines of a purely abstract radicalism, but must take account of the history of this form of high-budget mass entertainment, place Lagaan in that history, and then assess its progressive or regressive character.
Anand is right in saying that Lagaan is a Gandhian film. But what precisely is Gandhian about the film? To my mind, three important elements: one, that not only is the struggle against the colonial oppressor entirely non-violent, but even the possibility of a violent struggle is not considered. In other words, non-violence is the common sense. This is seen not just in the struggle against the British, but also visa- vis the traitor Lakha, who is saved from an angry mob by Bhuvan and converted to the cause by persuasion. Two, the depiction of the raja as a closet nationalist is of a piece with Gandhi’s insistence that the national movement should not extend to the Indian princely states. Three, the insistence on unity across classes of the colonised against the coloniser, and the relegation of all internal contradictions to that forever future moment of true swaraj.
This political-ideological position is deeply contradictory, and necessarily involves erasures. In the film, these erasures are most evidently present around the character of the dalit, Kachra, and the raja. Thus, for instance, we never learn what Kachra thinks about the match and his participation in it, and the question of what happens to him after the match is over is never considered. Similarly, the raja’s closet nationalism puts a cloak on the collaborationist role played by Indian princes under colonialism. My point is not that these erasures are not present, or that they should not be critiqued, but that in spite of them, the film is actually quite remarkable in what it says.
The central plank of Anand’s criticism is that Kachra “is a good spinner not because of ability, but because of his disability. The token Dalit is further Dalitised”. This is unfair. From the cricketing point of view, it amounts to saying that Muralitharan owes his phenomenal record to his deformity, not talent and hard work. At a larger level, physical deformity in Hindi cinema, as indeed most commercial cinema across the world, normally elicits ridicule or derision, or is associated with villainy. Kachra’s handicap, on the other hand, can be seen as a physical symbol of his social location. In other words, Kachra is doubly disadvantaged — by his caste as well by his handicap. The crucial question is not the fact of his handicap, but what role Kachra plays in the win, despite his handicap.
The cricket match itself is carefully constructed, and all the members of the Champaner eleven — which actually numbers 13, including as it does the boy Tipu and the British coach Elizabeth — contribute to the win. But without doubt, the three performances that prove decisive in the end are the leg-spinner’s hattrick which engineers a middle-order collapse of the rampaging British, the injured batsman’s heroic innings, and the captain’s century capped by the last ball six. These feats are performed by the handicapped dalit Kachra, the Muslim Ismail, and the peasant hero Bhuvan. Any fair critique of Lagaan is incomplete if it does not acknowledge this fundamental political statement, the very statement that the Hindutva brigade has found unpalatable. Kachra, then, is in line with a whole range of characters in literature, drama and film, where the weakest of the weak overcome their social and physical handicaps to accomplish heroic deeds: the hunchback of Notre Dame, or the deaf-mute daughter in Mother Courage. It is indeed surprising that Anand, who heaps scorn on the film for what it fails to show, does not bother to acknowledge what it does show.
And it is this political statement that Hindutva finds unpalatable. The ABVP journal, attacking Lagaan for its lack of realism, says, “Lagaan strives to be very ‘secular’: Hindus and Muslims live harmoniously in this Kutch village… and it is the crippled Harijan who indirectly helps the ‘Indian’ team beat the British’.
Anand states that he saw Lagaan “reluctantly’, some six months after the film was released. His resolve is pretty strong, because even when they dragged him kicking and screaming into the auditorium, he was obviously determined not to see Kachra’s match-turning hattrick. Poor Ismail and his brave knock is not even mentioned in Anand’s 7000 word-long article. (What would Anand say if someone were to attribute this to an anti-Muslim bias?) But there is much else he did not see. He claims that the debate over the inclusion of Kachra is “the only moment where an internal problem forces a confrontation in the film. All other flimic confrontations are with the external Other – the white, British male”. This is simply incorrect. Lakha is part of two confrontations: first, when he tries to prevent Ismail from joining team Champaner arguing that they (the Hindus) will not accept him, and then again when his own treachery is revealed.
Curiously, Anand gets Kachra’s bowling arm wrong: his handicapped arm is not his left, as Anand says, but his right. This would not have occasioned comment here, but for the fact that the problem is larger: Anand routinely mixes up the left and the right. His comments about AB Bardhan (who is not an MP as suggested), are a case in point. Reading Anand, one would imagine that the communist Bardhan has endorsed the Hindutva agenda. That suggestion is scarcely warranted by the context. Bardhan, in the immediate aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition, is merely making the point that the sangh parivar, which claims to speak for all Hindus, does nothing of the sort, and that there are many traditions within Hinduism which are antithetical to Hindutva. Gandhi’s politics is deeply problematic – and communists have been traditionally accused of being too harsh on Gandhi – but recalling Gandhi, against the very fascists who killed him, is a legitimate political strategy. It does not imply endorsement of the entire Gandhian programme, much less of Hindutva.
But even more astounding is Anand’s ignorance of the material conditions of the people whose cause he claims to uphold: “How does the lagaan… affect the Dalits? What is the problem that Dalits have with the white coloniser-state? Are not their problems more linked to the caste-colonialism sustained by the raja and the caste Hindus of the village?” Anand is innocently oblivious to rural reality. Those who are not, know that an increase in the tax burden is disproportionately passed on to the agricultural labourer and to artisanal and service castes, either in the form of reduced wages or as increases in labour and other levies. It could also lead to a general rise in prices or to a shortage of foodgrain in the event that the tax is in kind. There are any number of economic effects to the detriment of non-landed classes that readily come to mind, precisely because that is how they have manifested themselves repeatedly. So both the landed and the landless have an interest in the reduction of tax, because the tax on produce is only nominally a tax on the producer. Happily for the landed in Champaner, this elementary fact does not escape Kachra! The film itself may not explicitly recognise this point since it is simply recounting a nationalist saga. Whatever gloss nationalism itself may apply to it, such are the hard dynamics of national movements that cause social alliances to be forged, whether one approves of them or not.
Yet, of course, Lagaan is not a revolutionary film, any which way one looks at it, and whichever kind of revolution one desires, red, blue or green. It is a charming fantasy tale that constructs a Gandhian utopia. But coming as it does in our times, when the progressive current in the commercial film industry (which saw its heyday in the 1940s and early 50s with films like Dharti ke Lal, Do Bigha Zameen, Awaara, etc) has now been dead for some two decades, when for the last decade there has been an increasing communalisation of films, when the rare representation of lower castes in films are derogatory and villainish, Lagaan, with its foregrounding of the dalit-Muslim-small peasant combine, in spite of its erasures and silences, is basically progressive. Anand’s critique is politically irresponsible because it condemns without comprehension. Anger and passion are virtues only if harnessed to a critical perspective. You cannot fight what you do not understand.