Gang Politics

I noticed politics show up the most in the Gangs of Wasseypur series. Powerful characters often increase or show off their power in the show by running for office (like Ramadhir Singh) and by having connections with the government by controlling the police and businesses. The gangs run their own districts like mini kingdoms, with men like Ramadhir Singh and Sardar Khan as the kings who run business, tax others (albeit illegally), enforce their own justice like when Sardar forces one of the rapists to marry his rape victim, engage in alliances and truces like when Ramadhir teams up with the Qureshis against the Khans or when Danish tries to stop violence between the Qureshis and the Khans by marrying Shama Parveen, Sultan’s sister. Although they are criminals, the characters still have to navigate politics, which shows that politics is important and pervades most aspects of life, even among gangs and their wars and territories. Could the show be implying that politics are everywhere as stated, or does it imply that politics are immoral and corrupt by associating an extreme version of politics and its ugliness with immoral and corrupt characters? Politics is about a play for power, and Gangs is all about characters fighting for the most power.

A Fine Line of Representation

I remember when this film came out, there was controversy because many Indians felt Slumdog Millionaire portrayed India too negatively. Many movie universes showcase dystopias and harsh lives the characters suffer through. In this movie: two young boys witness their mother’s murder at the hands of a violent mob, Jamal and Salim’s home is destroyed because of riots between Hindus and Muslims, children are blinded to earn more as beggars, poor underage girls like Latika are groomed to enter prostitution, the police are corrupt and torture and beat up kids, men like Maman and Javed run the streets, and so on. While such a harsh world may work for a TV show like Game of Thrones or a movie like The Hunger Games, those worlds are fictional and feature people who already have exposure in many types of films. Fans of Games of Thrones, for example, clearly know that the show does not accurately depict Europe or European history. But most Americans know little of India except what they see on the news or in popular culture, and India and Indians already have little representation. So, a movie like Slumdog Millionaire may give most unknowing Americans wrong impressions of India as a country full of corruption, violence, and exploitation of the poor; which makes Indians’ protests and dislike of the movie somewhat understandable. Perhaps movies like Slumdog Millionaire would be better received if movies about or set in India were more common amongst American audiences.

How Does the Indian Diaspora Affect Hollywood?

Merriam Webster’s simple definition of diaspora is “a group of people who live outside the area in which they had lived for a long time or in which their ancestors lived.” In America, this usually refers to immigrants or descendants of immigrants, especially if they are non-white. It’s interesting to see how Indians and others are portrayed in American pop culture, and how in recent years they are portrayed less as stereotypes and instead as just other characters. Some films and shows which flesh out Indian characters beyond just their “Indian-ness” are Kumar from the “Harold and Kumar” series, who is a brilliant but slacking stoner with the classic strict Asian parents who push him to become a doctor, Tom Haverford from “Parks and Rec” who obsesses over technology and starts a business called Rent-A-Swag, and Apu from “The Simpsons,” who comedically plays with Indian stereotypes like owning a convenience store and entering an arranged marriage yet who knows much more about America than the “standard” white American Homer, as demonstrated when Apu shows off his knowledge of American history and law.

As Indian-Americans grow in population, and as India’s influence spreads throughout the world, people of Indian descent will hopefully show up more frequently in American cinema and will break more barriers for people of color, especially Asians, who still remain underrepresented and shorted by Hollywood. Some already have pushed forward into the spotlight, like Aziz Anzari and his success as a comedian and actor, and Mindy Kaling, who gained her own show on television, “The Mindy Project.”

New = Bad?

Although the series is set in India, I feel Gangs of Wasseypur would clearly fit in with American shows about crime, corruption, and violence. The Khans climb to power and eventually let that power get to their heads and pay the price for that power corruption along with the consequences of mingling with dangerous criminals like Ramadhir Singh and the Qureshis. The characters swear and use slang, use guns to control and intimidate people, and get lured by the lifestyle of money and power. Although they wear traditional clothing and eat traditional food, they also live in an urbanized, globalized world in which they watch movies at the theaters, ride motorcycles, wear westernized clothing, and more.

The India shown here differs from the India shown in movies like Mirch Masala and Gandhi. In those movies, Gandhi emphasizes the importance of relying on Indian goods instead of British goods, and the simplicity of the villagers in Mirch Masala are strongly contested with the extravagance and new technology of the British backed subedar. Also, in both those movies, unity is stressed, whether it is Gandhi advocating for all Indians to stick together regardless of caste or religion or the united women or the village as a whole against the subedar. In Gangs of Wasseypur, the new (and usually foreign) is viewed as better than the old like when Faizal Khan decides to get a pager to better communicate or when Sultan tells Ramadhir Singh he and his men need guns to be able to fight back against the Khans because blades aren’t good enough anymore. Because new technology becomes used to aid the gangs in their crimes, it becomes tinged with corruption and implies that new technology only worsens Wasseypur and Dhanbad. Also, there is little to no unity among Indians. Faizal’s father gets killed because he trusted Fazlu, who he believed was his friend, and later he tells his mother you cannot trust anyone. This proves true when Faizal gets killed by his own brother, Definite, who he trusted not to betray him. Ramadhir Singh gets betrayed by his son, J.P., who orchestrated his death by making a deal with Definite, the man Ramadhir supported throughout childhood, behind his back. The alliance between the Singhs and Qureshis gets broken even though the two originally united to fight a common enemy. Nagma and Nasir are loyal to the Khan family, specifically Sardar, and both suffer for their loyalty: Sardar cheats on and abandons Nagma and their children, and Nasir has to watch all of this family die while being helpless to do anything.

The India shown here shows a darker, grittier, and more pessimistic side. Nationalism doesn’t show up, and even the values of faith do not compel good even though most of the characters are Muslim.

Does It Matter What Happens Next?

The final scene of Mirch Masala shows the subedar on his knees, screaming in agony from the peppers thrown into his eyes, and then cuts to an image of Sonbai clutching a sickle, her expression of defiance. At first, I was disappointed by the ending because I wanted to know what happened next–does Sonbai kill the subedar? do the soldiers attack the village? does Sonbai get killed for her actions? and so on. But upon further reflection and after reading the Mazmudar article, I realized what will happen isn’t as important as what has already happened–which is Sonbai and the other village women’s uprising. Throughout the film, women remained at the mercy of men like when the mukhi disrespected his wife and forbid his daughter from an education, Sonbai’s husband ignored her pleas not to leave her and the village, Radha’s father controlled her marriage prospects and love life, the subedar attempted to force Sonbai to sleep with him, and the women in the factory relied on Abu Mian to protect them.

After Abu Mian is killed, the village women finally take control by uniting with Sonbai and fighting back against the subedar, a man powerful enough that even the village men fear offending him. They use the tools available to them: the spices and the sickle, which also symbolize their work. Sonbai’s sickle and expression tell the audience that whatever happens next, she won’t go down without a fight. She stands as a representation of the village women, and women like them and her, who are tired of being pushed around and have been forced to defend themselves because others (like the village men) won’t help them or because those who did defend them (like Abu Mian) cannot help them any longer. What matters most is that she and the other women have the ability to defend themselves.

Nationalism in Lagaan

Indian nationalism is represented in the film Lagaan with the people of Bhuvan’s village, and especially Bhuvan himself. Bhuvan is portrayed as a hero fighting for his (Indian) people against a foreign enemy, the British. When he stands up to Captain Russel, he does so to fight for his village and the whole province of villages, his “nation.” Although people in the village may not always get along or be looked down upon, they end up sticking together against the British. Goli and Bhura set aside their quarrels for the sake of the village. Outcasts like Guran, Bagha, and Kachra also join Bhuvan’s cricket team in a show of what Benedict Anderson refers to as the nation’s imagined sense of community. When the day of the fateful cricket match arrives, all the province’s villages travel to view the game and support Bhuvan’s team; and even though they have not interacted with Bhuvan or his team members before they are still nationalistic as they share the same values, ruler (the rajah), and enemy (Captain Russel.)

The British demonstrate nationalism as they (with Elizabeth as an exception) mostly only interact and respect other British people. Although Russel and the others interact with the rajah and Ram Singh, they still clearly do not value them as much as their British comrades. Even though the British occupy another land far away and much different than their homeland, they do not treat India as their home or nation, and practice their own British values and customs while either ignoring or denigrating Indian customs–like when Russel attempts to humiliate the rajah by forcing him to consume meat.

Elizabeth, Ram Singh, and the rajah play with the idea of nationalism as all three interact with both peoples and cultures. But overall, despite Ram Singh and the rajah spending most of the movie around British society, they are viewed foremost as Indian, with the rajah cheering on Bhuvan’s team to victory and Ram Singh getting slapped around by Russell even though he is the captain’s assistant. Elizabeth may be loved by the villagers, but she cannot truly join them–she was only a spectator to their songs and dances. When Bhuvan and the villagers celebrate their victory, Elizabeth is again pushed to the sidelines as she realizes she cannot be with Bhuvan.

Orientalism

While Gandhi in Gandhi stressed unity between people like Hindus and Muslims working together, rich and poor, Indian and white, etc., there were still divisions between the Indian nationalists and the white people who sought to help India’s independence. The best examples of this division between the east and west would be represented by the priest, Charlie Andrews, and Mirabehn. Charlie first shows up in South Africa to help Gandhi fight against the unjust laws against Indians in South Africa. He and Gandhi walk side by side as equals on the street, and Charlie also contributes to Gandhi’s newspaper. Later, Charlie travels with Gandhi to India, and explores the land too, even riding on top of a train with Indian men despite Gandhi’s wife’s protest. But eventually Gandhi tells Charlie to leave because he believes Indians should work for India’s independence without non-Indians.

Mirabehn, on the other hand, does not get told to leave or to stop aiding India’s independence movement. She differs from Charlie Andrews in that although is white and British, she takes on a new Indian identity by changing her English name to an Indian one, dresses like an Indian woman in Indian clothes,and leaves her British admiral father to become Gandhi’s daughter. East and West can work and live together, but to truly be intertwined, does one have to give up their identity in order to join the other?