May 26, 2020
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The Actor’s Studio

Is Amitabh the mould for the modern neta’s many masks?

The Actor’s Studio
The Actor’s Studio

The late prime minister V.P. Singh’s memoir Manzilon se Zyaada Safar has an interesting episode pertaining to Amitabh Bachchan’s political baptism in Allahabad in 1984. The episode is not so much an event as it is an image. An image, which by its very opacity, by its presentation of a mask where we would normally expect to meet a face, continues to exercise a certain strange power.

V.P. Singh, who was at that time the president of the UP state Congress party, recalls seeing Bachchan (whom he did not know of, he says, as he did not watch films) for the first time with his face “...covered in a towel”. Ever since I have read this, I can no longer see Amitabh Bachchan, not even retrospectively, without his face-towel on.

Rajiv Gandhi and his close advisors had decided that fielding Bachchan in the Lok Sabha elections for the Allahabad seat was a winning proposition. Bachchan was a friend, an Allahabad lad who had a cathartic place on the national stage and a decisive influence on the hairstyles and angst of millions.

Bachchan came to see V.P. Singh to discuss the impending election, together with Arun Nehru, and covered his face with a towel, so as not to be recognised. The superstar’s incognito entry into political life, shielded by a towel, was the muted beginning of a new phase in the relationship between politics and images, which would see more masks, less faces. After all, the year was 1984. The peace that stunned us all in the aftermath of the November pogrom of Sikhs in Delhi and the industrial accident at Bhopal was a war. Truth was a lie. And what could a well-known face be if it were not to be a mask.

Whether disguised, or in the spotlight, political actors (not all of whom are ‘actor-politicians’) from that moment on in 1984, have been masked men and women. The greater their claims to our attention, the more crafty the fashioning of their enigmas. Some have masks made of electronic gauze that flicker to life on prime-time television when they are invoked by the babble of the charlatans also known as anchors. Others have statuesque masks of stone and bronze. Some are a grimace, others are a smile. Some masks are made up of seemingly rash words, others of carefully weighed silences.

Hoard it Amitabh’s ad campaign for Uttar Pradesh

It has nowadays become commonplace to call politicians mukhotas or masks that cover other more oblique, darker realities. The rancid darkness behind masks can bridge the opaque backroom deal with the visible spectacle and the performed massacre. The disturbing image of a crowd wearing almost life-like Narendra Modi masks invokes a dystopic vision of a cloned tyrant (waiting for a science-fiction film called the ‘Boys from Gujarat’) whose power lies not in his distance from those he rules over, but from the uncanny and intimate proximity that is leveraged by his sinister ability to brand the faces of the multitude with his own features, and by their desire to jettison their own particularities in order to gain his grimace. When the electorate dons the Modi mask, it can turn itself into a crowd that no longer has the capacity to ‘lose face’ at the disasters meted out in its name.

So, what exactly did Amitabh Bachchan, Big B, Big Boss, the erstwhile angry young man, a sometime corporation, now a poet of banal blogging and a robustly ageing piece of handsomely upholstered furniture in every television owner’s living space, contribute to the political life of our greasy republic?

What Bachchan brought to Indian politics was not necessarily charisma alone (and it isn’t only filmstars that generate charisma in any case). He did of course have a headstart in terms of a flawless performance of sincerity. A quality that has stood by him at his murkiest moments. As a politician, he never quite exhausted the finely tuned ‘sincerity quotient’ in his self-presentation, even as he orchestrated the careful mix between a performative ‘son of the soil’ modesty and a grandiose Bollywood baritone. It was the same alloy of intimate ease with the common man or woman and a simultaneously aloof hauteur that later marked Bachchan’s avuncular presence on television quiz shows. Seeing Bachchan the patriarch pump, cajole and console contestants with a teflon smoothness that makes even his hairpiece look ragged is to witness what might have made Bachchan the political meteor that he once was. Seeing Bachchan ‘do’ Thackeray in films like Sarkar Raj is to watch him give even the darkest of political forces the gossamer shine of his careful blend of sincerity and cynicism.

In a recent blog post Bachchan writes, “Politics is a complicated world—a world where if you are unable to play the game, you remain a novice and a stranger eternally. I admire those who’ve  remained in it for long years. I admire the guile with which they steer their boats...those who pursue this line do so with utmost dedication, passion.”

One could of course read this statement as it is, and take it at face value, as an expression of genuine admiration on the part of a man who tried, failed and so applauds the successes of others, even while he makes a case for his own naive inability to play the game.

Or, one could read it against the grain, and consider it to be a report card given by a proud teacher to good students. Acharya Amitabh applauding the graduation of the masked princes who now rule us, who perform better on TV than they do on the streets, or in their offices, or even in the assembly. Bachchan was probably the pioneer who bridged the shadows of backroom cronyism with the spotlight of increasingly televised public life. Perhaps, like pioneers often are, he was occasionally clumsy and awkward while trying out the moves. But the deftness and dexterity of his true successors—and they now shine in every political party—suggests that what began in Allahabad in 1984 is today a full-blown revolution in the highly public performance of sincerity. The masks that these new pretenders wear empower them to give the right-sounding answers even to the wrong questions. They will rake in the billions. Inhein lock kiya jaye?

(The author is an artist and writer with the Raqs Media Collective.)

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