To me, one of the intriguing scenes in Bombay is the very first, where we are introduced to Shehkar and his father. I find it particularly interesting for a number of reasons. It follows the scene where Shehkar first sees Shaila, where they lock eyes, thus foreshadowing their upcoming relationship. Flashing to Shehkar’s family having dinner, the internal politics of the film are established. Throughout the films we’ve watched thus far, coming of age and marriage are consistent themes. Shekhar’s father is against the idea of him moving to Bombay to be a journalist. Moreover, he is opposed to the idea of his son marrying someone outside their community. The director is quite explicit in laying this framework early on, as it sets up the tension in the film.
His father has delivered the notion of their imagined community, which pinpoints strong opposition against those outside. As we later find out that Shaila is muslim, the stakes of the politics increase exponentially. She is the demonized “other”, which is common rhetoric in the division of Nationalism and Orientalism. It’s one thing for him to end up marrying a member outside of their community, but for it to be a muslim, in his father’s eyes, is a mortal sin.
“I am a black man born and raised in Mississippi. Ain’t nothing you can tell me about struggle.”
As one of the strongest quotes in the film, this really resonated with me. Being one of the leading states pushing for segregation to remain, I find the Mississippi setting to be very important to the plot and theme of the film. In many ways, it alluded back to the history of racism in America. The setting drew parallels to Rosa Parks, death of civil rights leaders at the hands of the KKK, and many others.
It made me think of one of the most notable Jim Crow laws in Mississippi, where “printed, typewritten or written matter urging or presenting for public acceptance or general information, arguments or suggestions in favor of social equality or of intermarriage between whites and Negroes, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and subject to fine not exceeding five hundred (500.00) dollars or imprisonment not exceeding six (6) months or both.”
Then, we see in the film that an Indian family and African American family refusing to allow interracial relations between their children. To the viewer, it seemed quite strange; however, I think that’s the point. As a common plot device in realist fiction, which this film very much is, Mississippi Masala rests on the use of estrangement (making something familiar seem unfamiliar) to flesh out the theme of the film. Having two marginalized groups pushing against inclusion and equality presents the strength of dominant discourse in American culture while highlighting the history of interracial relations in this country. In the end, the two lovers had to flee to escape the confines of the racist culture in which they live.
Most interesting to the film, Mississippi Masala, is the dichotomy of Mina’s life within and outside the home. With her parents, we see her attend large wedding ceremonies, with the keynote speaker telling them “though they are 10,000 miles from India, they should never forget their roots, forget their tradition, or forget their culture.” I find this intriguing because Mina had never actually liked within India, but instead in communities in England and Africa. Likewise, we see the scene of prayer at their motel-based home. These are two ideas established by the film as inherently Indian, one that a western-based viewer would be familiar with.
Conversely, we see her life outside the home, where she spends the majority of her time with Denzel Washington’s character, Demetrius. She goes to parties, has dinner with his family, travels with him to Biloxi, etc. In turn, she ends up falling in love with him, much to the dismay of her parents. She has “brought shame to their heads” by associating with a non-Indian. Her response to their claim marks the true premise to her identity: “this is America, no one cares … I love him; is that a crime?” Technically, no, but her parents essentially view it that way. It’s this conflicting ideology that highlights a transnationalist identity, and marks the inherent generational difference between Mina and her parents, which is likely due to her spending the majority of her life living outside of Indian communities.
Aside from the explicitly shown conflict between Salim, Jamal, and Maman, which conveys the exploitation that exists between the lower and upper-middle class in India, one of the most interesting things displayed within the film is the role other prominent characters played in class politics; specifically, how the police and the host of ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’ refused to accept that someone from the lower class was going to attain high-status. Early on, the host tells him he has no chance to get an answer correct, and prompts him to take the money. Later, he goes even further. “Win and you’ll be as rich as me … well, almost,” he says to Jamal on set, only to attempt to give him a red herring, by offering him an incorrect answer to a question he was unsure of. Then when Jamal thwarts his attempt, the host claim Jamal is a cheater, and all it took was a call to the police to have him black-bagged and tortured, without even the slightest hint of evidence.
Then, after Jamal is taken into custody, we see the role the police play. At one point, he’s tied up from the wrists, hanging from the ceiling, hooked up to a car battery to be electrocuted. Following this, Jamal is to provide a back story for every answer he got got correct. Then, after the interrogator realizes Jamal isn’t lying, he lets him walk free. Most interestingly, knowing that Latika is being held against her will by Jahvid Khan, the interrogator leaves without offering assistance. This clearly displays what it means to have power and wealth–freedom to do as you please. It’s this guilty and proven innocent message that is displayed through Jamal that represents the clear distinction between the lower- and upper-class.
Throughout the series, there is an explicit emphasis on making the viewer evident of those who have obtained power by way of corruption. Initially, we see it through Ramadhir Singh, who has an enormous amount of wealth and power–so much so that he has control over the police in Wasseypur, access to western technology such as weapons, and other various things. Ramadhir came into power by purchasing the mines of Wasseypur after India gained independence. He tells his works that they can either be paid or have room and board, not both. In turn, he burns their homes to the ground. From the viewer’s perspective, this is terribly unjust.
Then, we flash forward and see Sardar Khan. Early on, we see him as a low-level gangster seeking revenge against Ramadhir for killing his father, Shahid Khan. Shahid spoke out against the exploitation of laborers brought on by Ramdhir, ultimately leading to his death. It is when we see Sardar begin to gain power by way of corruption that things begin to go sour. He begins taking out members of the Qureishi, looting trains, purchasing weapons, etc. In the four episodes, this arc reaches its climax when he decides to “go legit”; that is, rather than gain wealth and power by way killing, he chooses to do so by extortion. He purchases all the ponds in Wasseypur, forcing the fisherman to give their profits to him. Likewise, throughout the span of the series, we see the toll his personal vendetta takes on his family life. He is forced to choose between a life within or outside of Wasseypur. He chooses to leave the city, ultimately leaving behind Durga and his son. In turn, she chooses to conspire against him, working with Ramadhir. This leads to the end of Episode 4, where Sardar is violently shot by several members of the Qureishi. I find this is not done coincidentally. Rather than focus on his main objective, Sardar tell’s his brothers that he’s had enough of all the conflict with Ramadhir. He overlooks the aim of his father, which was to end the oppression by Ramadhir Singh on the mine workers of Wasseypur. Instead, through extortion of the working class, Sardar focuses to build his power and wealth, leading to an attempt on his life. This strongly parallels the arc of Ramadhir Singh.
The consistent message throughout the film, Mirch Masala, is a critique of the gender relations between men and women, specifically, the ways in which women are treated as objects of male desire. One of the examples provided by the film is the scene where the Subedar, portrayed by Naseeruddin Shah, is in the hut with the young woman, imposing his will upon her. She seems completely willing, which can be a red herring to the audience. The act of forcefully imposing sex upon a women in itself, to a western audience, is far from the norm. However, as this is a Bollywood film, the intended audience is likely not those from the West. The director chooses to employ specific tactics to heighten the tension of this scene, which is a way of implicitly critiquing what is happening.
The setting is within the women’s home. Choosing to encapsulate within four walls give the viewer the feeling of being trapped, especially as the Subedar is standing in front of the door, seemingly blocking it. It’s as though, like the woman, there is no escape for us. Secondly, the film gets a quite grainy here, and coupled with the choice of lighting, which is overly dark, it has a gothic or horror tonality to it. The woman chooses to play a record, which ends up stuck repeating the same words. Similarly to the setting, this suggests the feeling of entrapment. As a familiar example, it reminded me of the film 1408. In the film, John Cusack is trapped within a hotel room, and he wakes up every morning to the alarm clock repeatedly playing “We’ve Only Just Begun” by The Carpenters. Lastly, the director uses the camera to display power dynamics between the Subedar and the women. Consistently, he is shot from an upward angle, as though the viewer is looking up at him, putting him in a position of power. The tension built throughout the scene makes the Subedar’s actions appear inherently wrong, especially as he being overly aggressive with his female counterpart.
One of the interesting inclusions of Lagaan was Kachra, the dalit/untouchable. Clearly, there was a political agenda with his inclusion, as Bhuvan literally touches him–going against his proclaimed title. Also, Bhuvan makes the speech telling his people to “not commit to this caste division” and accept Kachra as one of their own. Moreover, the role he served in the film was of pretty significant importance. With his ability to curve the ball while bowling (pitching), he was vital to help secure an Indian victory. Upon doing so, he is even celebrated by his teammates. The nationalist message delivered is that all Indians must unite together to defeat the British. However, there was an opportunity by the filmmakers to go even deeper with this message of Dalit equality.
In the end of the film, it is Bhuvan and Kachra who are left to bat, and he is explicitly labeled as one weakest batters of the team. Could this mean that, in opposition to Bhuvan and some of the others, Kachra is a weaker member of society? Possibly. The opportunity was there to make him the true hero of the day, as he was the last to bat. However, it was not seized, as the filmmakers chose to have him strike out (lacking cricket terminology here), but there be a penalty committed by the bowler, leaving Bhuvan to bat and win the day. Though the filmmakers are making Kachra a pivotal part of the plot, and included a deep political message by putting him within the ranks of other working-class Indians, it seems as though they backtracked, disallowing him to move higher within the social hierarchy. Had Kachra been left to bat, rather than putting Bhuvan back into the limelight, the message of Kachra’s equality would have wrung much deeper. Nevertheless, though he played a key contributing factor in the team’s victory, the opportunity to truly put him on equal ground — and possible even transcend him past — was left out.