Originally published on Round Table India
“If you accept to play the games by the rules set up by those who own or control the board, you will always lose.”
– Jean-Paul Sartre
Surprisingly, a writer for Scroll.in in a recent article asked a very pertinent question – “Why doesn’t the violence against Dalits incite liberal fury, as does violence against Muslims?” (Unsurprisingly though, he fails in his analysis.) But it is worth our while to consider this question. So what is it about caste violence that makes it worthy of far lesser attention and outrage than anti-Muslim violence?
One obvious conclusion to arrive at, and which is not without truth in it, is that the lives of lower castes value less. Three main material reasons for this is that the Dalits have never been ruling classes in this country and structural violence against Dalits has been a constant for centuries; two, Dalits do not have the international networks and influence like the Muslims, and atrocities against them will not provoke adverse reactions from external actors; finally, the (forced) invisibility of Dalits in the public sphere makes the liberal mind ignorant and immune to anti-Dalit violence.
But a far more insidious process is happening here, one that is ideological in nature. This is the Hindu-Muslim Love Story. And it is this narrative that we must try to decode if we are to understand why the concern for Muslims does not extend to the lower castes, if we are understand why the anti-Muslim BJP is enemy no 1 for the liberal Hindu, but the CPI(M) which began its rule in Bengal with the massacre of hundreds of Dalits is an ally in the fight against communalism.
The historical playground is important. At one end, the Hindutva brigade moans the Islamic invasions and the ‘cruelties’ of the Muslim rule in India. To counter the Right Hindus, it has been pointed out by several Left Hindu historians that the Muslim rule was tolerant to their Hindu subjects and that claims of persecutions were exaggerated. They present several historical records to show the privileges that Hindus enjoyed in Muslim courts. We know that the ‘Islamic bigot’ Aurangzeb’s court had a sizeable representation of upper-caste Hindus. Movies are made eulogizing Akbar’s affairs with Rajput princesses. We can add some more examples. Muslims served in Rana Pratap’s army. Devaraya II built mosques for his Muslim soldiers while Ramaraya allowed his Muslim subjects to kill and consume cows in their quarters. Vavar’s mosque near Ayyappan’s temple in Sabarimalai is worshipped by the Hindus. The Muslim lady Bibi Nanchari’s devotion to Vishnu is celebrated by The Hindu as a ‘tale of eternal love’ – indeed, she is considered at places in South India as a lover and consort of Vishnu.
Liberal scholars will hold up these facts to state the tolerance, pluralism, multiculturalism etc. of India. What is missing in these historical romances is the fact that none of this mutual tolerance and respect translated into a modicum of change for those at the lower ends of the society. None of these religiously liberal rulers even considered something as simple as providing the untouchable castes access to temple entry or a decent education. Whether the Indian postcolonialists like it or not, it was secular colonial modernity that opened up that space. That is another theme to be considered later. But it is precisely the validation of this Hindu-Muslim Love Story that is required to preserve the entity of India, to impose an artificial unity on several nations within the sub-continent, and to put a veil on far deeper structural injustices in the Indian society. Why? Because the Good Hindu realizes that the Muslim is necessary to his being-a-Hindu and is thus genuinely grateful to the Muslim for it.
Another writer on Round Table India, Khalid Anis Ansari, has captured how the Hindu-Muslim narrative in India is set by the Hindu upper castes and their Muslim equivalents, the Ashrafs. He also notes how this works to the detriment of the lower castes and the Pasmandas, the lower sections of the Muslims in India. Let us see how this ideology operates.
Good Hindu/Bad Hindu
Brahminism’s brilliance as an ideology is its creation of false binaries and forcing them on people who have nothing to gain from either side, but are nevertheless ‘compelled’ to take a side. Shankaracharya or Ramanujacharya? Gandhi or Savarkar? Congress or BJP? Teesta Setalvad or Amit Shah? This is a strategy that predates and perfectly complements the postmodern condition of making false free choices in neo-liberal capitalism. “Do you want Pepsi or Coke?” No thanks!
We might assume that the Good Muslim/Bad Muslim is such a binary that has dangerous consequences. But it is the Good Hindu/Bad Hindu binary that is far, far more lethal. The Bad Hindu is a bigot. Often coarse and vulgar, he is easily identified by his unabashed xenophobia. The Bad Hindu is just like any other fundamentalist in any other part of the world, easy to understand, easier to oppose.
The Good Hindu on the other hand is a peculiar phenomena. He reeks of ideology. You can find him quoting any radical text from anywhere in the world, giving support to exotic causes, and leading the fight against imperialism. He has several isms (pluralism, feminism, socialism etc) in his jhola which he will take out and use according to context. But the ism hidden in the pockets of his Fab-India kurta is the cultural logic of Brahminism…
In my stay in JNU, I had met some ultra-leftist Good Hindus who defended Osama bin Laden, Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Taliban for being ‘anti-imperialist’. These same leftists accused Kanshi Ram, Mayawati, and the Dravidian parties of being corrupt and practicing identity politics. But then again, these Good Hindus will also adopt the role of Dalit saviors if the situation requires, accusing the OBCs of being the real oppressors. They will discover Ambedkar and write a preface to him to introduce him to the Western world. They will use corporate platforms to convey communism, while lecturing to Dalits and OBCs about the evils of capitalism.They will question White privilege, but questioning Brahmin privilege will be termed ‘identity politics’. They will note how their party cadres are 90% Dalits, but not how their party leaders and intellectuals are 99% Brahmin… such are the riddles of the Good Hindu!
Fluid, flexible, and highly fashionable unlike his neanderthalic Bad Hindu counterpart, the Good Hindu is the highest point of evolution of Brahminism. And if there is a cause par excellence that he is committed to, it is Islamophilia. And we can take some examples from cinema to consider this point.
Some Islamophilic Cinematic Fantasies
We can consider some movies where the Hindu-Muslim identities are subject to an intense romantic treatment. These are just a few popular samples. Mani Ratnam’s Bombay (1995) is of a Hinduized Tamil male marrying a conservative Muslim girl. In the wake of the Mumbai riots, the love story comes to the foreground and unites Hindus and Muslims as one family, one nation, one India. Karan Johar’s Kurbaan (2009) shows a Hindu woman married to a Muslim terrorist and his My Name is Khan (2010) shows a Hindu woman married to a Muslim who is not a terrorist – both movies promoting the idea of tolerance and the vitality of modern India. The more recent Rajkumar Hirani’s PK (2014) showing a Hindu Indian girl in love with a Pakistani Muslim shows that Indianness can also be reconciled with Pakistaniness. Anything can go: as long as the Hindu upper caste remains at the top, and the Indian physical and ideological structure that preserves this remains intact.
Aparna Sen’s Mr and Mrs Iyer (2002) is instructive here. The Hindu character, Meenakshi Iyer, a conservative Brahmin wife and mother of a child, is exposed to an Islamophobic world of rioting Bad Hindus while travelling with a Muslim acquaintance. As she witnesses the violence, her humanitarian (Good Hindu) side takes over. She helps out her Muslim friend, and gets helped out by him in return, with both developing a strong mutual attraction eventually. We must resist the temptation to be blinded by these ‘human feelings’ overdoses and question the brutal logic that lies beneath. In the movie, Raja, the Muslim character does nothing to change the attitude of Mrs. Iyer towards her caste identity, how the “Iyer” identity by itself discursively implies that there are caste identities inferior to it. Is this not also the character of Muslim Rajas in India, who accommodated the elites, but did nothing for those at the lowest end of the spectrum? At the end of movie, as at the end of the Muslim rule in India, the Brahmin remained a Brahmin, if anything, more revitalized thanks to the Muslim. So, one must not miss the significance of this movie winning the Nargis Dutt Award for Best Feature Film on National Integration. (Incidentally, Nargis Dutt’s story itself is a Hindu-Muslim Love Story.)
We can observe such fantasies playing among the reactions of the Good Hindus to the bogey of Love Jihad that was raised recently by the Bad Hindus. One such Good Hindu woman was very concerned for the safety of her Muslim partner and the prospects for their marriage under Modi rule. She feared, perhaps rightly, that the Modi rule would place restrictions on Hindu women to make their choices. And she ended up defending the Aam Aadmi Party, an outfit no less Brahminical than the BJP. Another such touching story was narrated in The New York Times, of one Ms. Iyer and a Mr. Khan. Their children were praised as “poster girls for a modern and liberal India.” So it is not just the reel, but also the real Mr. and Mrs. Iyer who make a fantastic story!
The Story That Is Not Told
Now, to prevent misinterpretation, the author must add here that he is not conveying a lack of belief in the possibility of love between a Hindu and Muslim. Indeed, love, genuine love, can exist between them as individuals. But when this love becomes a story that articulates certain identities (at the expense of others) and enters the terrain of discourse, it ceases to concern two individuals alone. It becomes political, exposes the politics of the narrators and the subjects, in what they say and what they do not say, and why this is so.
We know for a fact that violence in the forms of killings, attacks, sexual assaults and humiliation heaped on Dalits is a pan-Indian phenomenon, an everyday occurrence, and has been happening even prior to Muslim arrival. If so, why aren’t stories of inter-caste marriages and appeals for dismantling caste bigotries appearing in the public domain with the intensity and zeal as the Hindu-Muslim Love Story? Why couldn’t these individuals be critical towards their Hindu identity and challenge it? It is, as Ambedkar observed, because the Hindu who is obsessed with his own self and the selfish interests of his class is incapable of critical self-introspection. The Dalits and OBCs asserting their humanity will dislodge the superhuman status of the ones at the top. Which is why the romance of the external Other is much preferable to asking crucial questions about the construction of the Self, which stories of the internal Other will bring about. In fact, the romance of the external Other is a screen to prevent such questions being asked about the imagined Hindu Self.
What Position to Take?
Why did Ambedkar and Periyar attack ‘Islamophilic’ Gandhi more than ‘Islamophobic’ Savarkar? The intellectual acumen of Ambedkar and Periyar was such that they realized Bad Hindus like Savarkar and Golwalkar were only a malignant symptom (and one can extend this to the BJP, RSS and VHP too) while it was the Good Hindus like Gandhi then (and in contemporary times we can add CPI(M), Congress and others) who were saving the disease of Hinduism using the love of Muslims as a cover. The former wanted a militant Hinduism, one that would not tolerate other religions. The latter wanted to create an image of a benevolent Hinduism, one that would embrace other religions, while benevolently maintaining its inherent social hierarchy. The Bad Hindu wants only his own particularity to be respected. The Good Hindu, in his tolerance for all religious particularities, also wants his own particularity to be tolerated. Neither are capable of a genuine Universality. To be asked to choose between these two is to be subject to a fraud.
Unfortunately, some non-Brahmin writers too have fallen in the trap laid by the Good Hindus of specifically opposing Hindutva’s opposition to Islam and Muslims. I have sought to show in the article above how Brahminism is a dynamic system that creates elite subjects who BOTH hate and love Muslims. If the bad Hindu uses Dalits and OBCs as mere pawns in the Hindu-Muslim hate games, the Hindu-Muslim Love Story of the good Hindu places them as poor spectators allotted the cheapest seats in a farcical drama. The only radical thing to do is avoid taking sides and to articulate the Periayarite and Ambedkarite position that the construction of the Hindu identity is by itself an oppressive riddle that needs to be dismantled. Ambedkarism and Periyarism have no place in, and no need for, the fantasies of Mr and Mrs Iyer.
It is a shame to confess this, but I watched A Few Good Men for the first time only a few days back. The American courtroom drama captures the political drama between the American Liberal and the American Right-Winger that has been playing out for several decades now. If Jack Nicholson militarist diatribe in the famous “You cant handle the truth” scene was powerful, so was Tom Cruise’s prosecution of the accused. Both men stood for the American ideal; they just interpreted it differently. But the American Liberal is willing to fight for his ideals, even though he might not understand the nature of the same. The transformation of Cruise’s character in the movie from frivolous to serious is a commentary on how the liberal would rise up to the occasion to save the system from its unwanted (but necessary) elements. And as much as we may find them annoying, many American liberals are serious in their opposition to the Right.
Flashback to Shaurya. I watched this movie a few years back, knowing that it was a remake of the above flick. Now this is an Indian courtroom drama with Rahul Bose playing Cruise and Kay Kay Menon playing Nicholson. Menon was spellbinding; every frame he appears in reeks of power. His militarist rant, with a mixture of blind patriotism and personal tragedy, effectively shows him as a man of principles, however bad they may be. (Kay Kay Menon is a dangerous actor: In Gulaal, he had my support for free Rajputana!) Menon was a worthy choice to play Nicholson’s role. On the other hand, Rahul Bose had not 1% of the passion or intensity of Cruise’s character. Like the Indian liberal, his character is visibly – politically incorrect terms ahead – emasculated and impotent. And yet he wins by trickery, and proceeds to give a banal monologue about Indian secular values, which even he doesnt seem to be convinced about. But in reality, the Indian liberal will never put up a fight against the Indian militarist because, like Bose’s character, they have no conviction and reality is no courtroom drama where such easy victories are scored.
1. Somasundaram is (again) one of Koothu Pattarai’s great gifts to Tamil cinema. This man deserves accolades at several levels. I fervently hope he does not get misused by the film industry like that other great Koothu Pattarai product, Pasupathi.
2. This movie shows how political satire must be made. Except maybe for MR Radha’s performances, this movie is an exemplar of the genre.
3. Strength: The story, the actors. It is really tough to elegantly play the role of a mentally unstable person who thinks that he is perfectly normal. DiCaprio did that in Shutter Island. Somasundram does it here. Madness plays in the iris of his eyes and on the corner of his lips.
4. Crux: The toilet. Normally, the suppressed, ‘dirty’ aspect of a caste society, the toilet is the center of this movie. The director’s genius is revealed here.
5. Flaw: The pedantic dialogue of Mu Ramasamy in the climax. His “religion is evil, caste is evil, politics is evil” perspective makes it look like AAP propaganda. The movie should have ended with Somasundaram’s death.
6. Comment: Someone should send Slavoj Zizek a subtitled copy of Joker. He may write a chapter on how not only Somasundaram’s character of Mannar “a beggar who believes that he is a king” is delusional, but ha ha, even the king who believes that he is a king is delusional. That is, psychopathology is not a obtrusion in society, but its core. So maybe, it is not just Mannar who believes that he is the President is mad, even the President who believes that the politics of development has delivered is also mad. And so on and so on. And so on.
7. On a serious note: Look at it this way. Mannar thinks that the President is a post that has power. The President knows that the post has no real power, but acts as though it does. So who is the Joker?
The subaltern hypermale dominating and disciplining the upper-class, ostensibly upper-caste, female is a usual theme in Tamil cinema. While MGR did this by his mere presence by his being the patriarch par-excellence, the later ‘heroes’ did so almost always by recourse to physical violence. This is why Rajanayagam’s analysis in his “Popular Cinema and Politics in South India” where he argues that MGR emphasizes the valorous man and Rajinikanth emphasizes the virile man needs to be expanded. Rajini, Vijay, Dhanush and others, NEED to emphasize the image of the virile man to compensate for the lack of either virility or valor. And the only way this compensation plays out is on the body of the independent woman who is harassed, harangued, and humiliated to play a disciplined role.
As bad as the reel world is, real Tamil society is a lot worse. Women wearing leggings, women driving two-wheelers or cars, women in academia, women on facebook, women writing poetry, women supporting radical politics, women seeking protection of the law, or women just living their own lives, are all subjects of vulgar attacks by self-declared subalternists who need to demonstrate their virility (i.e. compensate for a lack) by attacking such women and claiming it to be part of a class struggle and what not.
Liberal feminism has a thousand problems and raises a thousand questions. But defending and glorifying subaltern misogyny has no answers to it.
Sometimes, I feel that the liberal-left meetings here, especially pro-diversity meetings and “people of color” meetings and literary discussions with exotic Asian writers, are much like the therapy sessions for people suffering from testicular cancer in the movie “Fight Club”. You know, get together in a group with some feeling of togetherness and identity (ooh la la) and attempt at catharsis by narrating your unique experiences, sharing sad stories, hugging and feeling each other and so on. Which is why the radical presence in that group in the movie is not the cynical narrator who does not have testicular cancer but who pretends to be a victim and joins the group to get some meaning in life – rather it is the character of Marla Singer who makes a parody of this group by participating in it despite obviously not having testicles. But she is the one in that situation who has the balls, in an allegorical sense, because she is the cynic who knows that she is a cynic and is also courageous enough to expose the cynicism of those who think that they are believers but are actually cynics themselves. Maybe that is the real radical act of politics today. More than speaking truth to power, we need to reflect on the lies that the liberal-left tells to itself to create an illusion of some happy harmonious community and throw them back in its face. Without doing this, let alone revolution, even substantive reform is not possible.
A late trigger warning: I hope I didnt offend anyone who gets touchy about the subject of testicular cancer. If I did, well, balls to you.
So now, some western pseudo-activists and fake philosophers like Peter Singer are arguing for extending human rights to apes. Am sure these folks found the new Planet of the Apes quite inspiring, especially the noble character of Caesar. I mean, Caesar is perfect for multicultural liberals. He builds this happy primate commune in the woods and keeps away from modernity, living harmoniously with nature. So Western liberals can look at him and feel pleasurably guilty “Oh look at them, living such egalitarian organic lives, whereas we corrupted modern westerns, we have violated mother nature.” Much like the ‘I love indigenous people’ (aka Avatar aka Arundhati Roy) arguments being made today. In all likelihood, the next liberal sexual fantasy would be to portray an interspecies romance between a Western woman and a handsome ape…
But what happens when these cute apes adapt to modernity and cross barriers with divine violence? Such an ape becomes a villain – like Koba. I really liked Koba. He is not some stupid nature loving particularist ape to whom you can be an ally. He breaks the barriers of nature, adapts to modernity, and tries to bring in a New World Order. Now, among the first people such a revolutionary ape would kill would be these moronic liberals who want warm artificial harmonies to assuage their own guilt. The language of liberal human rights itself is a product of such a useless guilt.
Well, Ape dont want rights. APE WANT REVOLUTION!!!
Note: Incidentally, Stalin’s nickname was Koba.
Watched Mani Ratnam’s “Anjali” and Bala’s “Naan Kadavul” back to back. Here are some thoughts:
Mani Ratnam’s “Anjali” was undoubtedly his best film. A middle class melodrama about a petit-bourgeois family with three children, the youngest of whom has a terminal illness, in addition to having a stunted mental development. Performance wise, everyone in the movie was brilliant (except the Janakaraj role, which is a caricature). And all central characters in the movie are cute, desirable, adorable. The central focus of the film, the child’s suffering and its impact on those around her, is converted to an aesthetic phenomena. By the power of her innocence, she converts an entire neighborhood of mean kids into shedding a tear for her. When the movie finishes, you too might be left crying, because you too are a target of this conversion. But what really lies beneath your platonic compassion is a perverse pleasure that you have enjoyed – that you have done your duty by feeling for an innocent, sweet, suffering child. You can leave feeling human.
Bala’s “Naan Kadavul” also deals with disability – but instead of the aestheticized, and anesthetized, suffering of an individual subject in a ‘normal’ middle class family, he introduces you to the suffering of the underclass among the underclass – beggars. Suffering, in Bala’s vision, is not some catastrophic event, but everyday existence. Bala takes pain to whole new level. He takes you to the the daily life of a class to whom the closest relationship the middle-class viewer might have had is one of condescending charity. The central character of the “man-god” (Arya) only lampoons the godlessness of religion. Spirituality and humanity are not venerated – their failures are exposed. There are no cute characters and the only character which you might find ‘tolerable’ – the blind beggar played by Pooja Umashankar – is beaten to a pulp and seeks salvation in death. (Note: Death is the only thing that the Hindu variant of liberation theology can offer.) Bala’s aesthetics, or anti-aesthetics, breaks the platonic trinity of the Good, the True and the Beautiful. In the end you are left feeling overwhelmed by emptiness. Or, closer to the human essence.
Mani Ratnam tests your middle class sympathy. Bala tests the limits of your middle class stomach. Mani Ratnam offers you a pseudo-reality for you to enjoy the illusion of reality without its harsher side-effects. “Beer without alcohol”. Bala on the other hand offers you that very reality that you are unwilling to admit, that dark corner of humanity that society tries to repress. If great art is meant to be something penetrative, Bala is the greater artist. Mani sir only scratches around the surface.
So, Bala > Mani Ratnam.
“X-Men: Days of Future Past” is an unashamed defense of American liberalism. Whether past or future, liberal democracy and multicultural tolerance is the end of history. On the good side, the young Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is not just awesome – he is awe-inspiring (he makes Wolverine played by Hugh Jackman look like a street punk). Confronting his partner who wants to assassinate an individual bad guy among the humans, he says that this one guy is not the problem, rather “they are”. Concomitantly, he is the only truly political person in the movie, who knows what war is, who knows who the enemies are, and who knows that struggle – not reconciliation – is the only way out.
On another note, every time I recollect the below conversation from the earlier “X-Men: First Class”, I get goosebumps. Pretty much sums up what our relation to the Sinhalese – “innocent” or not – must be like.
“Professor X: Erik, you said yourself we’re the better men. This is the time to prove it. There are thousands of men on those ships. Good, honest, innocent men! They’re just following orders.
Magneto: I’ve been at the mercy of “men just following orders”. Never again.”
Originally published on The Weekend Leader as “Portrayal of Tamil assertion in films”
First, let me say that I thoroughly enjoyed watching debutant director Naveen’s Moodar Koodam (Fools Gathering). A low budget movie of a genre that is rarely taken up in Tamil cinema – dark humour – it was good entertainment.
The comic storyline, interspersed with even more comic flashbacks, the lack of an infallible hero and his often senseless romance, a narrative that gives weight to all characters, make the movie a worthwhile watch.
While I appreciate the style of the movie, I have to disagree with some aspects of its content. The director seems to have unnecessarily mixed what could have been a good comedy on its own with a social commentary that is banal.
The semi-pedagogical dialogues on communism and the ills of capitalism seem rather pointless especially at a time when most communists in India don’t know what it is that they are fighting for.
The romanticising of the rural as naively good and the cursing of the urban social elites as being morally corrupt has become a boring theme.
This ranting against English, IT professionals, the upwardly mobile has been hammered through Tamil cinema enough.
After a point, the contempt for knowledge and modernity gets really annoying. And it also makes one wonder whether what is being advocated is a rule similar to the Sharia laws…
But why is it that the Tamilophile is usually a crass, frustrated, lower/lower-middle class male who mostly behaves like a sociopath?
Haven’t we had enough with Katradhu Tamizh where the protagonist, a misogynist, goes around killing, beating and molesting people because they did not conform to his notion of Tamil culture?
Or rather, why can’t a smooth and suave and socially refined man – or for that matter, woman – be a Tamilophile? The latter would be the really radical thing to portray.
Likewise, the scene from the movie, where one of the protagonists harasses a guy for talking to him in English, which is in wide circulation in social media, cannot appeal to the learned.
A positive assertion of identity cannot be based on paranoia and insecurity and berating your own for neglecting their ‘roots’, real or imagined. But again, to be fair to the director, maybe this is why he called his movie ‘Moodar Koodam’.
A much radical portrayal of Tamil assertion can be seen in a particular scene in the movie Tamizh Padam. A reel Manmohan Singh calls up the protagonist asking him to take-up a police assignment, speaking to him in Hindi throughout.
After hearing out the Indian Prime Minister with an indifferent look on his face, the protagonist replies in Tamil “Sorry PM ji, I don’t know Hindi” and cuts the phone.
The Indian PM is left with a bewildered look on his face. Comedy apart, this scene speaks more for an assertive Tamil nationalism than all the “Tamil kalaachaaram (culture)” jingoism that we have been subject to in other movies.
When you look at it, the protagonist of Tamizh Padam is really ‘speaking truth to power’ when he tells the highest political authority of India that he (symbolically representing Tamils) can’t speak Hindi, and refuses to engage in further conversation.
This is the real positive assertion of identity – being confident without being xenophobic, refusing to entertain dialogue with the Other who does not recognize you, while at the same time not boring yourself and those around you with didactic rants.
Indeed Tamil Nadu’s identity politics of the future cannot be like Moodar Koodam – a gathering of fools.
Originally published on Countercurrents
Some sections of the Indian media may be going gaga over the ‘realistic’, ‘non-dramatic’ film ‘Madras Cafe’ of Shoojit Sircar. Some have, rather shamelessly, compared it to Zero Dark Thirty – in reality, GI Joe: Retaliation is a more gripping watch. While the poor sense of aesthetics of these pseudo-critics is lamentable, their contempt for history as it happened leaves much to question.
Selective history, grand conspiracy theory, not-so-subtle Indian patriotism all go into the making of a movie that principally exonerates India from all culpability of the brutal war crimes committed against the Tamils by the IPKF. From the start till the end, the subtext of the movie is to project India, a nuclear power state with the fourth largest army in the world, as a victim of the LTTE. For the record, at the height of the IPKF-LTTE war, over 100000 Indian soldiers armed to the teeth confronted about 3000 LTTE cadres. Despite this, India lost.
“They were powerful. In this game, we lost our prime minister, and the Lankan Tamils, their future,” confesses RAW agent Vikram Singh (played by John Abraham) to a Christian priest. The entire movie is the confession of Vikram to the priest, from his activities as a RAW agent in IPKF occupied Jaffna, to the failure of the RAW to break the LTTE, to their failure to stop Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination.
The numerous atrocities suffered by the Eelam Tamils under the IPKF, the murders, tortures, rapes and disappearances, do not form part of his confession. Thus, no mention of the same in the film. On the other hand, the reel LTTE are shown as fanatics, who even murder the wife of Vikram in India in their attempts to get to him. I am yet to hear of a single case where the real LTTE has deliberately targeted the family of officers or soldiers of even the genocidal Sri Lankan military.
The LTTE, shown in the film as Liberation of Tamils Front (LTF), are shown as some intransigent armed rebel group that has support of the local population. Why did the armed struggle come about, what did the Sinhala state do to create such a situation, why did the Tigers oppose the Indian solution of 13th Amendment, why did the Tamil people stand with the ‘rebel group’, and what did the IPKF actually do in the course of its intervention – these are questions not even considered by the filmmaker. But the words “provincial council elections” are repeated to the point of being a slogan throughout the movie. Contrast this with the bare minimal usage of the word ‘Sinhalese’ in the movie – it is as if they had no role to play at all. The tagline for the movie was “Intercept the truth”.
The first half of the film is concerned with the RAW agent’s covert operations in Jaffna. These include scenes that allude to RAW’s role in supporting Tamil groups antithetical to the struggle for Tamil Eelam, the Mahattaya split and so. Of course, the intelligence failure in the famous ‘Jaffna University Helidrop’ is underplayed, though the filmmaker grudgingly acknowledges the superior intelligence of the Tigers at that time.
The second half of the movie, concerned with the Rajiv Gandhi assassination, is actually banal. Other movies like ‘Mission 90 Days’ have covered the subject with more intensity, and with far more venom. Madras Cafe tells us that its LTF was a foot-soldier of foreign forces in carrying out the plot.
“Corporations, big countries, big organizations,” in short, “economic hitmen” supported the LTF, we are told. The purpose is “economic control, business deals and large arms contracts,” it is asserted. An intelligence officer informs Vikram that the war is for Trincomalee, that the foreign forces wanted the LTF in power so that they can get the harbour, and that this would be a threat for India. Last time I heard however, it was the US that gave Sri Lanka effective advice in counterinsurgency strategy to remove the LTTE from the coveted harbour.
“At no stage did we ever consider India as an enemy force. Our people always consider India as our friend. They have great expectations that the Indian super power will take a positive stand on our national question,” LTTE leader Velupillai Pirapaharan said in his Heroes’ Day address on 27 November 2008. He has never referred to any other country in such terms.
However, Anna Bhaskaran, the movie’s celluloid version of Pirapaharan, tells in an interview to British journalist Jaya (a sad allusion to the Indian journalist Anita Pratap) that he will even consider taking help from the West to wage their struggle.
This is the other subtext of the movie. India is justified in assisting unitary Sri Lanka, irrespective of what the latter does, else foreign powers will intervene and that will be against India’s ‘national interests’.
To be fair to the movie, it has its share of laughs.
For instance, the scene where Jaya interviews Anna in English and the leader of the Tamil struggle responds to it – in Hindi.
The climax was dark comedy. Vikram ends his confession and walks out of the church muttering lines from Rabindranath Tagore’s famous poem from Gitanjali “Where the mind is without fear…” The poem is a utopian vision of an ideal democratic country. Unitary Sri Lanka, which India has been supporting till now, is the perfect antithesis of the spirit of the poem.
The line best suited for the context of Madras Cafe, however, is Alfred Tennyson’s “That a lie which is half a truth is ever the blackest of lies”.