Existential angst is, of course, universal and inescapable. Its resolution, however, is individual-specific and contextual. How this problem has been addressed in the recently released Lakshya would be interesting to explore.
The film is important for multiple reasons. It marks the return of Javed Akhtar, as a scriptwriter, after a hiatus of more than a decade. It brings together the formidable combination of Javed with Amitabh Bachchan, who along with Salim Khan had created the cult figure of the ‘Angry Young Man’, the protagonist of the highly successful ‘anti-establishment’ films of the 70’s, which spawned innumerable clones and changed the very face of Hindi Cinema.
Lakshya, is directed by Farhan Akhtar, son of Javed Akhtar, thereby providing an interesting fusion of two generation of filmmakers, with their own style, craft and vision. Moreover, Farhan, quite like his father, broke new ground with his maiden venture, Dil Chahta Hai, through refreshing innovations in the language and presentation of cinema.
Javed Akhtar, of late, has become a fairly visible political activist. And most importantly, this film was made against the backdrop of ‘interesting’ times--the nuclearisation of the subcontinent, the Kargil episode, the coming to power of the Hindutva forces, 9/11, Bush-Osama face off, Iraq invasion and, of course, Gujarat 2002.
Lakshya, as the very name suggests, is probably the only film, which addresses itself directly to the fundamental enigma of human existence-- what is the purpose of life? More significantly, it seems that it has unraveled the mysteries and found an answer to the existential riddle. It is with this sense of Archimedean discovery that its promos boldly declare:
IT NEEDED HIM 24 YEARS AND 18,000ft. TO DISCOVER HIMSELF.
Let us traverse this cinematic journey of self-discovery, and see how the eurekian lakshya is realized.
But first a brief note on the structure and treatment of the film. It is amazing that in spite of two genuinely talented, creative and innovative film craftsmen with a proven track record coming together, the film is anything but that. It is banal, pedestrian, cliché ridden. These are strong words. But let me explain.
All non-Brechtian art is the art of lying. It is to present fiction as non-fiction, illusion as reality. Great artists do not ask the audience to suspend their sense of disbelief. Rather, they interpellate the audience in such a way that they enter their artistic world, not as zombies, but as aware and conscious beings, and yet get sucked into the vortex of their craft, precisely because they identify, in whatever way, with the artistic product, whether it is a painting, a novel or a film. In cricket, what ‘experts’ call effortless batting is anything but that. As Asghar Wajahat, playwright/novelist/academician, points out, a lot of effort, thought and hours of practice go into the making of all those strokes, which are called effortless.
(Likewise, in Production of Hindu- Muslim Violence in Contemporary India, as the title of the book suggests, Paul R. Brass, the illustrious political scientist, does not regard acts of collective Hindu-Muslim violence mainly as spontaneous riots ‘caused’ by social, demographic, economic and political specificities of the time- space situation, as so many ‘scholars’ have tried to pontificate, but as "dramatic productions in which what is spontaneous can occur only because the scene has been prepared with numerous ‘rehearsals’ by various players with defined roles and division of labour".)
However, in Lakshya it is precisely this magic, which is missing. The laboured technique of conjoining disparate elements, the obvious montage of newspaper headlines and television visuals, the awe as also nostalgia of personal experiences seen and experienced through a set of blinkered glasses tainted with the dominant ideology, are all too apparent. It is this that makes the narrative disjointed, splitting at its seam, thereby failing to seduce the audience.
The other alternative is something akin to a docu-drama. This genre provides a happy mix of documentary and narrative cinema. Govind Nihalani’s, Hazar Chaurasi Ki Ma, Dev, amongst others, are some of the notable representatives of this genre. These films, by compulsion (unless one is Anand Patwardhan, the high priest of documentary films) are extremely wordy, and for some, even preachy, thereby failing at the box office.
But, nevertheless, apart from providing a deep sense of satisfaction to the filmmaker for unburdening all that was weighing on his conscience, it also provides the opportunity to clinically analysise and tear of the veils and facades behind which reality is habitually/historically made to hide by the powers-that-be.
Lakshya unhappily falls between both these stools. This film is essentially, like Dev, a docu-drama. While Dev, takes of from Gujarat 2002, as also the never-ending, so-called Hindu- Muslim riots, Lakshya takes of from the Kargil episode. In its immediate aftermath, the extremely media-friendly, Javed Akhtar, left no opportunity to tell us how emotionally surcharged he became, after visiting all those ‘hot-spots’ where, as Amitabh Bachchan in his orgasmic bass voice intones, "Hum log jaagte hain, ki voh (our countrymen) so saken" (We keep awake, so that they can sleep), and how humbled he felt when confronted with their heroic deeds.
It is this, which explains the montage. Heroism had to be anchored. And what better anchorage, but the purposelessness of youth. The perfect story for a blockbuster.
So what went wrong?
The problem with both the script as also its presentation is the total lack of imagination, thereby producing linear and static characters and situations. Consider the portrayal of wastefulness and excesses of youth. This is primarily done through a couple of repetitive images. The first shows Hrithik sprawled on the bed, sleeping blissfully late in the morning, the servant placing a glass of juice by his bedside, and he telling the latter to switch on the geyser.
The second shows him in the company of his friends, where without much ado the conversation inevitably veers around to what they plan to do in life, and Hrithik looking askance almost bewildered, gapes, while they spell out their career choices. There is no joi de vivre, no fun, and no masti. There is no living in the here and now, savouring the moment, or in Akhtar’s own words, "Har pal yahan, jee bhar jiyo, jo hai sama, kal ho na ho". Everything is so serious, missionary, prim and proper.
In fact, it is this ambience that pervades the entire filmic landscape. Even the girlfriend is uptight and so politically correct, like her father. All that they are bothered about is what his future plans are. And it is not that he has been leading a life of debauchery, or that he is over the hill. Hrithik is still a college kid. But the ambience around him is such that he is forever feeling guilty, almost apologetic about his self. It is this overpowering sense of disdain for his ‘Main Aisa Kyon hoon?’ (Why am I like this?) Self that almost forces him to join the Army.
If youth is characterized by waywardness/ purposelessness/ confusion/ rebellion/ anger/ iconoclasm, the Army as an institution represents its antithesis. The problem with Lakshya is that while it fails to capture the spirit of the former in any credible manner, it resorts to the crude gimmick of romanticizing the latter, almost to the extent of reifying it. Plotting the two sets of value systems as binary opposites and then forcing a face-off between them, by pejoratively portraying one, leads to the uncritical reverence of the other.
Right from the time Hrithik enters the Indian Military Academy (IMA), Dehradoon, till the last shot, the Army and everything associated with it are presented in a reverential light. In fact, the second partof the first half of the film is essentially a documentary on the IMA, singing paeans to the institution.
This is why when Hrithik initially chooses to play the fool and make light of its disciplined, regimented ethos, and then decides to run away, not only is he ostracized by his commitment-phobic girlfriend, but also very quickly falls down in his own esteem, only to return back to its hallowed precincts. Once back he is severely reprimanded, and then made to take a vow that he would never ever dare to question/ doubt/ infringe/ violate the policies and practices of the institution, and follow all orders blindly. Once chastened, he readily agrees.
Co-option is complete. Our hero has found his Lakshya. All that is required is its realization/ actualization.
This is brought out in the second half of the film, via the god-sent Pakistani intrusion in Kargil. This helps in clearing any remnant mist that might cloud his vision. Everything is non-problematic, crystal clear. The enemy has been identified. He is out there. He must be smoked out, liquidated any which way. There is not, cannot be any more important purpose in life.
It is with this sense of certainty and single- minded determination that our hero sets out to right the wrongs, and in the most non-imaginative collage culled from the print and visual media, as also earlier pop-patriotic war films, he happily brings about the actualization of his Lakshya.
All this has serious connotations.
The US vs. THEM paradigm is so typical of all fascist discourse, transcending time and space. Whether it be Hitlerism, Bushism, Jehadism, Modism--all are firmly grounded within it. For it to be successful, it must be carefully constructed, making invisible the process of construction, projecting it as natural, value-free, objective.
Colonising the high moral ground and erasing all vertical and horizontal cleavages and fault lines, an imagined, non-problematic, homogenous monolith is constructed not in isolation but in antagonism, to an imagined other. This face-off helps in unleashing a series of binary opposites as, Right/ Wrong, Good/ Bad, Moral/ Immoral, Honourable/ Treacherous, Human/ Inhuman, White/ Black, and Hero/ Villain. The enemy thus constructed, becomes the embodiment of all negativities, thereby inviting collective ire. Its liquidation is cathartic, leading to the realization of one’s Lakshya.
True, like other films of its genre, the hate-other diatribe is not as crude and vulgar. The Akhtars with their refined aesthetic sensibilities would balk at the very idea of descending to that level. After all the sophisticates must keep their distance. And yet, despite the subtleties, Lakshya reinforces the regular stereotypes posited in the earlier films.
Just one example. After launching a bloody attack on the enemy, leaving most of them dead and successfully liberating one of the peaks, Amitabh Bachchan, orders his officers to give the corpses a decent burial. This is met with sullen resentment. The argument being that the Pakistanis had never cared for such decencies. In fact they would badly mutilate the bodies, before handing them over, and that is exactly what we must do. Amitabh’s riposte is simple: hummen aur unmen kuchh fark hai, aur yeh fark bana rehna chahiye (There is a difference between US and Them, and this distance must be maintained).
Thus while he may not resort to the shrill saale/ kutte/ kamine kind of invectives hurled at the enemy as in Border, Gadar etc., nevertheless he is articulating precisely the same discourse, though in a genteel and suave manner. In fact, the rest of this speech, is a straight lift from Border, whereby the conflict is projected as being between the Saintly US vs. the Satanic Them:
" Zara socho voh kaisi army hogi, jo apne officers, apne javanon ki bodies ko vapas lene se inkaar karti hai" (Just imagine what kind of an army must it be which refuses to take back the bodies of its own officers and jawans).
And then for the final knock out punch.
"Yeh Indian Army hai; hum dushmani mein bhi sharafat rakhte hain" (This is the Indian Army; even in enmity we are gentlemanly). If this is not reification, what is?
Implicit in the acceptance of the US/ THEM dichotomy, is the uncritical internalization of the dominant discourse. Nowhere is it evidenced more than in Lakshya. If a substantial part of the first half is a paean to IMA, a major portion of the second half is nothing else than the cinematic rendition of the BJP’s take on Kargil.
Kargil, like Gujarat 2002 and Ayodhya, has acquired iconic status. Today, these are no longer names of places where certain dramatic happenings took place. They represent the site where fundamental ideological battles are being fought, where such profound matters like, ways of life, worldviews are being contested. In such a tenuous, problematic terrain, Javed Akhtar maps out an amazingly simplistic, linear, seamless, and a Xeroxed copy of the dominant discourse.
So what is Kargil all about?
Firstly, Kargil was a stunning slap in the face of the pro-bomb votaries, especially its authors. It exposed the lie inherent in the justificatory theory advanced by them, that possession of the Bomb would straightforwardly propel India, in the select league of the Super-Powers, thereby instilling such morbid fear and awe amongst its adversaries that none would even dare to look it in the eye, forget about attacking it. On the contrary, never before had Pakistan penetrated so deep inside Indian Territory, and stayed for so long as in nuclearised India.
Secondly, it showcased the hollowness, the immense vulnerability of the Indian Army, which is touted as one of the most efficient, professional and strongest standing armies of the world.
Thirdly, today when the State is cutting down on subsidies and spending in nearly all societal sectors, every successive government has been religiously upping the expenditure on defence. And yet despite this pampering, possessing the latest state-of-art technological know-how, it was courtesy a lowly herdsman that the mighty Indian Army came to know about any intrusion.
Fourthly, even after passage of precious time, the then ideologically acrobatic Defence Minister (ex socialist/ neo-con), told the nation that only a few intruders had entered, and very soon they would be taken care of.
Fifthly, it was this amazingly cavalier attitude that initially resulted in the death of all those young officers, who were fed as cannon fodder, on the fallacious premise that this was merely a minor incursion.
Sixthly, our ‘victory’ in Kargil, was in no small measure the result of the mediatory efforts made by Bill Clinton in convincing Pakistan to withdraw, as he has openly stated in his autobiographical My Life, and validated by the then Pakistani Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, in a recent interview given to India Today. (26 July 2004).
Lastly, the Kargil fall-out was extremely messy. As Outlook and Frontline, in a series of articles showcased how in the blame game that was going on, the needle of suspicion pointed towards the highest echelons of power, and yet it were those on the lower rung who were victimized.
It is within this problematic scenario that Kargil must be located. And yet, the politically pro-active Javed Akhtar erases and silences all these subversive facts, to present a sanitized cinematic version of the ‘establishment’ discourse.
However, this is not surprising, for someone, who was chosen by the then Government of India, to be a member of the handpicked film delegation to visit Kargil while ‘Operation Vijay’ was on. Moreover, just one year later he was the official guest of the Indian Army, to interact on a person-to-person basis with all those heroic soldiers. Maybe, it was this lethal mix of the magnanimity of the host and familial tehzeeb, spiced with sentimentality and nostalgia, that makes Javed Akhtar look reverentially at the institution of the army. It is this blinkered gaze, which makes invisible its essential nature.
The Army, fundamentally, is a powerful tool in the hands of the political elite. How, when and where it is used or abused, activated or de-activated, depends entirely on their whims and political compulsions. Moreover, it is characterized by a rigid, hierarchical command structure, where commands flow from the top vertically down the line.
Who sits at the top and issues those commands, is of course, irrelevant. Like the proverbial ‘Big Brother’ it is nebulous, shrouded in secrecy. However, whatever they say, is God’s truth. Thus, in Lakshya, as the casualties mount up and wounded soldiers are brought to the hospital, a concerned Priety Zinta, while doing some loud thinking, questions the senselessness of war, and wonders why problems could not be sorted out in a peaceful manner. An officer, till then dormant, suddenly flares up, roundly fires her for even thinking along these lines. His diatribe follows the familiar pattern. It is peaceniks, journalists like her who are the most insensate. The enemy is inhuman, treacherous, untrustworthy. It is our bounden duty to liquidate them. Nothing else is relevant. It is not to question why, it is but to do and die; into the valley of death, must we all ride.
It is this army life that is touted as the resolution of all existential angst.
What does it connote?
Never question, never doubt. Follow the leader blindly. Respect hierarchy. Jettison all critical thinking. Fit yourself in the slot assigned to you. Never try to decipher the Big Picture. Your slot is your world. Don’t worry, Be Happy.
But these are precisely the characteristics of Adorno’s ‘Authoritarian Personality’. And they are the ones who constitute the biggest and the most stable support base for people like Hitler, Bush, Osama Bin Laden, and Modi. It is in this august company that Javed Akhtar pushes his hero.
Quite clearly there is a serious disconnect between Akhtar’s impeccably liberal aspirations and the authoritarian conclusions that he seems to espouse. The reason for this dichotomy is a combination of astonishing naivety, simplistic analysis, uncritical thinking mired in dollops of what Dostoyveski called ‘horrid sentimentalism’.
It is this lethal mix, which drives him into another imbroglio: the doubtlessly secular Akhtar, pushing the envelope for the crass communalists. In his naivety, he does not realize that it is, precisely through this ideological route that all hindutvavadis/ jehaadis are conscripted. As Sabiha Sumer, in her brilliant delineation of the birth of a jehaadi, in the highly acclaimed Khamosh Paani (Silent Waters), shows how a young boy, quite like the protagonist of Lakshya, drift less and purposeless, suddenly finds a ‘direction’ in his life when the shady jehaadis infuse within him a sense of purpose, by ‘educating’ him about the larger goal that he has to fight for: cleansing his nation of all the evil that has been brought about by the satanic THEM.
Javed Akhtar, whether voluntarily, or involuntarily, consciously or unconsciously, has become the Poster Boy of the so-called ‘Secular Muslims’. In fact he has founded a Forum called ‘Muslims for Secular Democracy’. And herein lies the problem. The very term ‘secular Muslims’ is highly problematic, as much as ‘secular Hindus’. Secularism needs no suffixes or prefixes. It is like talking of ‘gay secularists’, ‘coloured secularists’ or ‘bald secularists’.
To elucidate this, let me refer to one of Shabana Azmi’s interview, when she was a Member of Parliament. Being a multifaceted personality, she was asked, which role did she most identify with. And her answer was that it all depended on the situation. Thus when she was in front of the camera, she was an actress, inside the Parliament, a Parliamentarian, when with her parents, a daughter, sitting on a dharna, a social activist, savouring sevai while celebrating Id, a Muslim, exchanging endearments with Javed, a wife and so on.
What she was clearly articulating was the obvious: that a person has multiple identies, and which identity is foregrounded, while the rest recede to the background depends entirely on the specificity of the situation. It is the fundamentalists/ revisionists/ communalists (denote them by whichever designation) that not only privilege, but also subsume all other identities, within the overarching religious one. It is only logical then that they author slogans like "Garv se kaho hum Hindu/ Mussalman hain", depending on their constituency.
If one erases all the obfuscations that have crept in defining ‘secularism’, thanks to the learned treatises written on its etymological/ historical/ sociological/ political roots, and focus on its fundamental spirit, of being not only tolerant, but also appreciative of other people’s religious rites, belief systems and way of life, with the State and its organs being non-partisan, especially in the Indian context characterized as it is, by an all pervasive diversity, to suffix/prefix the term by using markers of religion, sexuality, gender, colour, ethnicity, status etc. is totally irrelevant, if not counter-productive.
It was Camus who said that for the slaves to fight slavery, they must stop accepting the definitions authored by their masters.Likewise, for the secularists, it is imperative that they must choose the terrain.In the last decade and a half, it is the communalists who have successfully been deciding both the terms of the debate as also the ground on which it is fought, thereby making rapid strides. Not only did they seize political power, but have made massive inroads in civil society, as evidenced in the Gujarat 2002 pogrom. Most importantly, if this process continues, secularists would soon constitute the smallest minority in secular India!
It is here that Lakshya not only falters but also inadvertently falls precisely in the trap so assiduously laid out by them. In the recent past, it was Sarfarosh that started this trend of counterbalancing a bad/ desh -drohi Muslim with a good/ watan-ke-liye-marnewala Muslim. Before it, starting with Maniratnam’s much acclaimed Roja, in the early 90’s, the archetypal villain, was of course, the Muslim, the shady sarhad-ke-paarwala, having his accomplices here, jo deemak ki tarha desh ka andar se hi vinaash kar rahe hain.
Sarfarosh, tried to rectify precisely this slant by consciously inserting a scene where a Muslim police officer, in order to prove his nationalist credentials, gives a long diatribe on how his religion will not come in the way of vanquishing his co-religionists, to save the country. This pattern, since then has been used in a number of lesser films, and is shamelessly followed in Lakshya, albeit in a much cruder way.
Having no narrative logic, a scene has quite clearly been injected for this sole purpose. A Muslim army officer, after slaying the intruders and capturing one of their camps, in a verbal exchange with his Pakistani counterpart on the wireless threatens, " Humare ilaake se jaldi nikal jaao nahin to khuda ki kasam hum tumhaare sab aadmiyon ko maar daalenge" (Get out of our territory, otherwise God’s promise, we shall liquidate all your men). And the Pakistani responds, "Khuda ki kasam! Mussalmaan ho kya? (Are you a Muslim?). Tellingly, the Muslim officer replies, " Tumhaare liye sirf hindutani hoon". (For you I am only an Indian).
The problem with this good/ patriotic Muslim and bad/ desh- drohi Muslim schema is that it fits perfectly into the Hindutva paradigm. Whether it be Advani, Thackeray, Togadia, or Modi, all have consistently maintained that they are not against all Muslims, but only against those who are anti-nationals/ jehadis. The question is, what is the criteria to decide who is who, and sift them apart. And while the pogrom is on, it would be fascinating to find out, how such niceties would be observed.
Moreover, in the majoritarian discourse, Muslims per se are tainted by the fact that they are Babur ki aulaad, and therefore suspect by virtue of their religion. This is something like POTA. A person is deemed guilty, until proven innocent. The onus of responsibility, unlike all tenets of natural law and justice, lies on the individuals to prove their innocence. Thus all Muslims are suspect, till somehow they are able to establish their patriotic credentials.
Not only is this humiliating and hugely offensive for any self-respecting person, but totally illogical, especially in a country whose preamble to the constitution, definitively states, that there shall be no discrimination on the basis of religion, apart from other things. The very fact that such a question should arise is itself ridiculous. And yet such are the times, that such monstrosity has become normal discourse.
And this is exactly what Lakshya is reiterating, wherein a Muslim army officer has to literally show -off his patriotic credentials, by erasing and completely disavowing his religious identity. Hindutva’s agenda of ensuring that Muslims must perpetually be made to sit on the horns of an illogical and artificially created dilemma, finds its echo in Lakshya.
And it is this, which is not only disconcerting, but also dangerous. As Sanjay Subramahmanyam in his recent expose` of Ashis Nandy (Outlook, July,19, 2004) argues that attacks on ‘secularism’ as an ideology in India, in the last 15-20 years, has come from two quarters. One’s the predictable Hindu majoritarian view, and the other is that articulated by the ‘indigenists’ like Nandy and his ilk. I share his concern that people like Nandy, and Javed Akhtar as revealed in Lakshya, no matter whatever their initial motivations, have become complicit with those who hold the first view.
It wouldn’t do them any harm if they were to re-examine their theoretical postulates, and the politics it engenders.
Fareed Kazmi teaches Political Science at the University of Allahabad. Apart from publishing articles on representation and identity in films, he is also the author of Human Rights: Myth and Reality and The Politics of India's Conventional Cinema: Imaging A Universe, Subverting A Multiverse (Sage Publications).
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