An ode to Mani Ratnam : The voice of insurgency-I

Tranquility is the first word that comes to my mind when I think of Mani Ratnam movies. They draw you in with their slow pace and scenic beauty. They make you marvel at nature and pleasantly surprise you with how captivating everyday life can be in the rural countryside. Authenticity is a defining quality of his works which is reflected even through the dialogues and so is a magical element that can’t be pinpointed.  It is very similar to AR Rahman’s composition and Santosh Sivan’s cinematography. No wonder AR Rahman made his debut with Mani Ratnam’s Roja. Today’s post is dedicated to his films that have given voice to insurgents. His rich and diverse body of work is an important part of fiction that revolves around insurgency. It isn’t limited to the famously known trilogy of films around the theme of terrorism comprising of Roja, Bombay, and Dil se either for which he rightly won National Award. Kannathil Mutthamital and Ravan can rightly be placed under an extended list under the same heading. 

The first movie at hand is Roja. At the outset, I would like to clarify that I know very little about the militancy issue in Kashmir. I have always been so intimidated by the complexity of the matter and a multitude of factors at play that it weakened any resolve I had to read up about the issue in the first place.  Therefore, I would just be pointing out logical fallacies. Since at the heart of the movie lies a very simple story, it shouldn’t pose much of a challenge. A Tamilian cryptographer gets abducted when he visits Kashmir for an assignment and is held hostage in exchange for a terrorist who has been captured by the Indian Army. Rishi is believable for most of the part when he points out the role of the militants in the Kashmiri Pandit exodus and killing of innocent people while suggesting that there is nothing that cannot be solved with talks. However, he gets preachy and over the top while displaying nationalistic fervor. Dil se might have received some serious flak for portraying militancy in Assam and Amar’s treatment of Meghana but it gives you a glimpse into the lives of the militants through personal accounts. Roja does no such thing and as a result, we get to know little about the motivation of the militants involved. In a nutshell, we are told that Pakistan has been encouraging militancy across the border and there isn’t anything more to the issue. The movie does a terrible job at addressing the various factors involved but then the movie didn’t set out to do that in the first place. It is about how a common man can suddenly fall prey to terrorism and rightfully celebrating our soldiers who sacrifice way more than they are usually given credit for. Most importantly the underlying message is that killing people at random can never resolve issues. Even Liaqat comes to this realization by the end of the movie. As I said in the beginning the core of the movie is a simple story revolving around human fragility and co-existence.

The second movie to be discussed today is Bombay. I know Bombay doesn’t deal with insurgency. It deals with something even worse; vote bank politics. State-sponsored riots are possibly one of the most abhorrent crimes to take place in a democratic setup. However, as per my understanding, communal tension-based riots have victims based on both sides. The politically correct manner of going about condemning the ghastly act of violence involves focusing on the loss of life rather than members of a certain religious community. As soon the response of people becomes more about connecting with the slain victims based on their religion than the fact that they are humans, it acts as an impetus for further alienation apart from devaluing life itself of those who are different. The Babri masjid demolition back in 1992 led to one of the worst riots ever experienced not only by Mumbai but the entire nation. As per various news reports, a complex set of socio-cultural factors were at play behind the threat to the inherently cosmopolitan fabric of the city. The demolition at that juncture added fodder to fire. Considering how the riots have been linked with the 1993 blasts and markedly different treatment meted out by the police force it would be easy for anyone to fall prey to taking sides but not Mani Ratnam. I agree that the various factors leading up to the riots have not been explored but he captured the riot scenes as they had never been covered on the silver screen before. During the first half of the movie, a love story unfolds so lazily amidst a sleepy sea-faced village that when communal tension begins engulfing the city it comes across as a rude shock. You realize in hindsight that an inter-religion marriage and the twin babies born out of it had a significant role in place the family in a uniquely precarious position. It brings forth an interesting question; will any of them be spared by rioters of their faith or would they be attacked as punishment for marrying someone outside their religion. What would be the fate of the children? This movie also showed one of the sons wake up in the middle of the night as a result of post-trauma stress disorder as the mother looks on helplessly while the father nervously tries to comfort him. In one of the scenes, the respective maternal and paternal grandfathers take their grandsons for azaan and maha aarti. On returning home the paternal grandfather is confronted by Muslim thugs before being rescued by the maternal grandfather. It is heartbreaking to see a child so young away wipe away the teekas on their foreheads in a bid to save themselves. It is ironic to note that a skull cap that can protect you amidst a certain group of miscreants is equally capable of endangering life amongst another group. The most heartwarming thing to note here is how even two men from different religions who are at loggerheads over their children marrying each other have it in them to look out for each other when the need arises. The chilling scenes portraying the murder of two mathadi workers and the Bane family amongst the most chilling scenes I have ever seen and managed to keep me awake for a long time that night. This movie has gone down the annals of cinematic history as one which held a mirror up front to the horrors of riots and valuing human life for the sake of human life itself.

The third movie to be discussed here is Dil se. In today’s time and age, it has been receiving a lot of flak for apparently glorifying eve-teasing and molestation perpetrated by Aman Verma. It is something that I found creepy as well. What one needs to remember is that a viewer is free to criticize the choices of a certain fictional character but to make personal attacks on the director himself is infringing upon his creative liberty to create a cinematic universe of his own for not fulfilling her expectations isn’t the best way to go about healthily airing your opinions. Better still accuse him of exploiting the collective tragedy of a certain state! On one hand, there are Assamese who passionately complain about the lack of representation of Assamese culture in the Hindi film industry and yet they take offense when someone makes an attempt at the same but doesn’t manage to fulfill their expectations. Apparently pointing out that someone has ‘choti ankhein aur chapti naak’ is a racial slur. Yeah, so as per this logic every time I am told that I got big eyes that they associate with Bengalis, I am supposed to tell them to not be racist. I am also not sure about how a man realizing that the woman he has been in love with has been subject to sexual harassment is a romanticization of the entire thing itself. It isn’t cool to talk down to viewers from other states who enjoyed the movie.

It has been admitted by many Assamese writers themselves that, people were indeed scared of celebrating national holidays as they were a constant fear of bomb explosions masterminded by the ULFA. In 2004, ULFA was responsible for a bomb blast in Dhemaji that killed 18 people. Since Dil se wasn’t a documentary I fail to understand why the plot couldn’t involve a bombing planned at the Republic Day Parade in New Delhi even though ULFA never operated beyond the state of Assam.[1] In one of the articles, someone has pointed out that the ending of the movie takes away agency from Meghana and she gives up her life for nothing. Amar’s savior complex is a reflection of how India feels about its northeastern states apparently. For me, she was a woman whose traumatic past didn’t let her create a happier future. After losing her family to gang rape and murder by the armed forces, ULFA was her only option out for survival. However, we cannot overlook the fact that she was also driven by the desire to seek revenge and even make Assam a better place to live in by fulfilling her role as a revolutionary. Time and again one can sense that she is falling for Amar against her better judgment. She endears herself to elderly women she comes in contact with and she inspires enough confidence in Preeti that she chooses to confide in her. She is the only one who sheds tears when one of the team members is killed and expresses her reservations about killing innocent people as a suicide bomber. Her is conscience is troubled by the problems Amar’s family would face once law enforcement agencies discover that they gave her shelter. I don’t think she was deprived of agency when she chooses to die. She was carrying too many burdens of the past to build a new life with Amar as he pleaded. At the same doing so would have meant diverting from the path she had chosen for herself and that’s exactly why she chose to die.[2] The movie gets so many things right. Amar justifies while interviewing an ULFA leader that although he would prefer that he speak in Hindi for the benefit of the listeners, he has written the questions in English. It is a subtle hint at how English is the only way to reach a middle ground in a country as linguistically diverse as ours. The interviewee then points out how alienated north-eastern states are made to feel due to systematically being deprived of opportunities as a result of vote bank politics. Then there are those in power who parrot that these people complaining have just been brainwashed by external forces. Most importantly, the movie showcases how the general public gets caught in the crossfire between brutalities perpetrated by the ULFA and excesses of the armed forces under the garb of the Armed Forces (Special Forces) Act, 1958. At the same time, we witness Amar, a son of an Army officer time and again take pride in the defense forces. In the case of another director, his personal biases might have gotten the better of him but not Mani Ratnam. If Dil se isn’t a fine example of balanced storytelling, I am not sure what is.


[1] https://www.timesofassam.com/entertainment/madras-cafe-haunted-by-ghosts-of-dil-se/

[2] https://www.news18.com/news/movies/22-years-of-dil-se-a-film-that-exploits-assamese-trauma-to-glorify-a-stalker-and-racist-2806021.html

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