Saturday, January 31, 2015

Baby: Terrorism, thrills and patriotic fervour

Neeraj Pandey’s Baby acquired more mileage and topicality than it aniticipated, thanks to the Charlie Hebdo incident, that has since floated multiple discussions, conferences and articles on the nature of global terrorism in the public domain. While acknowledging the fallacy in labelling every Muslim as terrorist (contrary to populist notions), a sizeable number of sensible journalists, social scientists, and political commentators seem to have arrived at a consensus that it is undeniable that the global face of terrorism in the twenty-first century has been unambiguously Islamic. S Prasannarajan, the editor of Open, writes:

"Fourteen years might be a tiny patch in history, but scars on the twenty-first century has one adjective – religious, or to be specific, Islamic."

Cautiously abstaining from generalising this claim, Prasannarajan qualifies the adjective, by pointing out, how such widespread ‘Islamic’ terrorism is contingent upon mindless misreading(s) of Islamic religious texts:

"The text of Islam continues to be read and misread for sustaining the twin essentials of its power struggle: conquest and the cult of martyrdom. Someone out there, somewhere in Arabia or Persia, is deconstructing the text for the expansion of a monochromatic imperium of absolute faith."

In the same edition, delineating terrorist networks that have spread like a difficult-to-unravel matrix in India, so much so that the country might just be sitting on a ticking time-bomb, P R Ramesh signs off with a portentous warning: “Indians have every reason in the world to be worried. Very worried.”

Pandey’s Baby reinforces this warning, uncovering the alarming networks through which terrorist activities are channelized, how young minds are tutored in and interpellated into jihad discourses, how it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate the perpetrators of violence from their victims. There are numerous nodal points in this militant network, which has disseminated worldwide rhizomically. There's no single trigger point of this violence which can be identified and eliminated; rather, this extremist ideology of  terrorism is being spread through countless groups, cyber networks, and training camps. While raising the alarm, Baby makes every attempt to dispel the anxiety by projecting an extremely efficient undercover security force, composed of zealous patriots, with the right mix of brawn and brain, who are always on vigil to protect the nation and its inhabitants. However, Ramesh’s warning that India is precariously living on the edge nags till the end.

Baby, addressing the populist sentiments towards the squabble over Kashmir, rather than delving into the complex discourses that condition militant activities across the globe, makes of it an us/them issue, India’s vulnerability against a revengeful neighbour. Yet, what sets the alarm bells ringing loud is that terrorist threats no longer reside on the other side of the borders; the threats are perilously lurking in every corner of the nation. 

Pandey, however, dissociates religious identity from the national, by making the leader of Baby, a Muslim. And Ajay tells Taufiq that on his passport, he writes INDIAN in bold letters, in the box against Religion, prioritizing the national over ethnic identities. But, what’s most unsettling is the power of this jihad, the immense power of the discourse of martyrdom associated with it.  With each passing day, it is seducing a steeply rising number of young Muslims (notwithstanding their nationalities) who are embracing its ideology fanatically, in the name of founding a puritan Islamic empire. Case in point: Jamal.

Pandey reveals an appalling reality, but, does not allow his average audience to ponder over it, by hooking them on to the thriller bait of ‘what would happen next?’ The thriller narrative mode, spinning mostly on hardcore action, violence and breath-taking suspense, supersedes the disturbing reality it presents, and perhaps, this is what is drawing the crowds to the theatre. Despite its honest efforts, Baby eventually turns out to be another patriotic film, sans the mushy sentimentalisation of its predecessors, though. But Ajay's desh-bhakti is no less electrifying than a Sunny Deol uprooting a tube-well, and mouthing volcanic dialogues in front of an India-hating Pakistani mob. 

Pandey’s A Wednesday was far more subtle and nuanced than this.

The film is remarkably well acted. Danny Denzongpa brings the right dose of confidence to his portrayal of Feroz Ali Khan. Akshaye Kumar’s Ajay is raw and fiery, while Rana Daggubati literally brings to his performance a bulging muscle power.  The performance which surpasses all is that of Rasheed Naaz as the Maulana.

Post Charlie Hebdo, and a ridiculously juvenile PK, Baby would appeal to many and generate new meanings. But both Hebdo and PK are coincidental to its release, as it goes without saying. It is Pandey’s good fortune that both these disasters (of very different kind though!) turned out to be his lucky stars, that unwittingly gave him a rather smooth sailing at the box-office. 
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