Saturday, June 23, 2012

Ashoka's Non-violence: Political Philosophy or Philosophical Politics?

The Great Mauryan Empire extended from Kandhar to Bengal and from Kashmir to Karnataka with an exception of Kalinga. Emperor Ashoka waged deadly war against Kalinga and annexed it. But seeing the damage done to life and property due to war, Ashoka was engulfed by grief and repentance. He turned to non-violence and spread the message of non-violence to the remotest corners of his kingdom.

Was this adoption of non-violence a political necessity for him or was it a real change of heart? Perhaps only Ashoka could answer it or perhaps he would not like to answer it. We can only speculate based on our humble understanding of politics and history. May be Gramsci could be of some help for us in analyzing this, though we will bent his notion of hegemony to suit our needs.

Gramsci considered that State is a tool by which Hegemon creates hegemony i.e. legitimizes his rule and exerts control. So was non-violence used as a tool for creating hegemony by Ashoka among his subjects? Adoption of non-violence as the highest virtue by their king, attracted the subjects to this notion. They started believing in the greatness of their ruler who became 'repentant' for a wrong, who wanted to establish rule of 'peace and non-violence' now, who would wage no more wars, who would give up all acts of cruelty and who is the messenger of peace and the beloved of Gods i.e. 'Devānāmpriya'. His message of peace and non-violence was spread to remotest corners of his vast empire by engraving on rocks and pillars. And what King believes in, people also believe in. His messages created sympathy and respect for him across his empire and beyond.

By this one masterstroke Ashoka forestalled the very possibility of any rebellion in such a vast and diverse empire. Subjugated kings, princes, aristocrats, bureaucrats, commanders and all others were imbibed by the virtue of non-violence and non-aggression. His supposed virtuosity also established peace on his borders. Point to be noted here is that after seeing great destruction at Kalinga and adopting Buddha's path of non-violence, Ashoka didn't relinquish the throne of Kalinga, which an ideal person would have done had he been so much moved by the violence and bloodshed. He assimilated Kalinga in his kingdom, rather.

Non-violence strengthened the foundations of his highly centralized empire which he could now rule with much ease. I am, therefore, tempted to believe that non-violence served as a great political philosophy for Ashoka. It seems more politics than philosophy !!

- Raja Banthia, On this 24th day of June, in the 2012th year of our Lord !!!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Are Films the Reflection of Society?

A film is not only an art but it is also a tool for humans to express their feelings, their idea of contemporary society. It acts like a voluptuous and visceral seductress in ravishing technicolour, triggering escapist fantasies laced with gore, retribution, sex, sorrow and salvation. Films are inextricably linked with the seismic and shattering changes that have convulsed India since 15 August 1947. They are mirrors that reflect the growing aspirations of Indian shaking off centuries of subjugation. They provide a platform for Indians to collectively celebrate or mourn. They reflect how politics, society and economy in India have been changing across the decades. Talk of the rise of middle class and you will find glittering examples in Bollywood. Talk of the emergence of small town India and you will see them in 70 mm screens. Talk of the gradual breakdown of the old feudal order; of despair, anger, alienation and separatism; of resurrection, a new resurgence and a new confidence. Films will feed you with dollops of sociology, anthropology and even pop psychology.
Jaiprakash Narain has raised the banner of revolt against Indira Gandhi and Bihar is in flames. In Gujarat, students declare the chief minister Chiman Bhai Patel to be “chiman chor” and launch a Navnirman Movement. Rage and revolution seem to be coursing through the veins of India. Bollywood knows this. Shattering the romantic complacence and escapism of Rajesh Khanna, Amitabh Bachchan bursts across the silver screen as the angry young man and the anti-hero. The revolt of the youth against a corrupt and cynical political establishment, Zanjeer and Deewar were all elements of a confusing collage that defined India during 1970s.
Bollywood also reflects the transformation of the Indian psyche from a post-colonial pastiche of diffident politeness of the 1950s to the confident global Indian of this century. Shammi Kapoor was first to launch this transformation during the 50s, Bachchan signalled through his on-screen behaviour that Indians were no longer willing to take things lying down. The new Indian could also be seen in the path breaking Dil Chahta Hai. Suddenly, it was cool to be cool. For decades, Bollywood reflected the angst and agony of struggling India. What started as a catharsis of the castrated has now ended in the metamorphosis of the mutilated. Along with the heroes, villains have also changed faces on the screen. From the cruel ‘zamindaars’ to antagonist rich fathers of the heroines, from deadly smugglers to anti-Indian Dr. Dangs & Mogambos, from corrupt politicians to new age monsters like terrorists, Bollywood has portrayed all those characters which Indian society has endorsed as villainous & anti-social. The new age heroine is also a revengeful & strong women like Madhuri Dixit in Anjaam while in early days females were epitomes of beauty & elegance like Vaijayanthi Mala in Sangam. From colourful ‘mela’ dances & ‘nautankis’ , to sizzling bar dances & discotheques, from holi celebrations to valentine’s day proposals; all these represent slow westernization of society.

During 50s, India tried hard to leave a mark. These were the years when a song from a Raj Kapoor film would be sung in faraway lands of the Soviet Union, Turkey and Africa. During this decade cities were attracting rural masses for employment opportunities they provided. But concerns were also being raised about the cultural decline such economic changes could bring about. In that sense Mother India & DoBigha Zameen portrayed the rural scenario. After all it was not very long ago that Mahatma Gandhi had said that real India lived in villages. In 1957, Pyasa, a treatise on individual struggles of post independence India hit cinemas. The film, directed by legendary Guru Dutt, was rated as one of the best 100 films of all times by Time.

The euphoria of Independence has faded away. By the early 60s, the time had come for India to look for solutions to its numerous problems. Manoj Kumar’s celluloid meditation on Lal Bahadur Shastri’s slogan of Jai Jawan Jai Kisan through his film Upkar underlined the sacrifices which were expected from the sons of the soil. Chetan Anand’s Haqeeqat chronicled the saga and valour of soldiers who lost their lives defending the nation. The story of Guide was in more than one way the story of an Indian who didn’t know which road to take till the end.

If the 50s represented romanticism and hope, and the 60s were marked by disillusionment and escapism, the 70s were clearly signed by rage and despair. This was the decade of angry movements; the death of democracy; the decade in which petrol suddenly became a precious commodity and inflation savaged India. The ‘oil shock’ of 1973 triggered a devastating bout of inflation that prompted movie makers like Manoj Kumar to make weepy films like Roti, Kapda aur Makaan. This decade also witnessed entry of Amitabh Bachchan with movies like Zanzeer, Sholay and Deewar that completely redefined the image of Indian hero. Enter the angry young man who is hell bent on changing the system; becoming a ‘villain’ in the process if that helps his cause. Of course, Indians wanted a revolution, but were not ready to completely destroy the old system. So Bachchan the rebel would be routinely killed in the climactic scenes. By and large, Indians were still very religious at heart. Hence, Jai Santoshi Maa, a religious treatise, was able to become a blockbuster in spite of its release with Sholay, the movie of the millennium.

In the 80s India faced real life Mogambos. While new frontiers of discontent opened up from Kashmir to the Northeast, Bollywood was busy experimenting with ingredients ranging from sci-fi to Hollywood remakes. By 1987, India was in dire need of an invisibility machine that could help her fight various Mogambos. Ironically, there was no Mr. India in sight though everybody claimed to be one.

90s was the age of flawed heroes, when black versus white morphed into a strange shade of grey. A strangely schizophrenic decade, the 90s witnessed a churn in politics, economics and society that would often transport India to the very edge of despair. Economic reforms in 1991 had made middle class Indians dream hitherto sacrilegious dreams of becoming rich. Consumerism was decisively pushing asceticism to the dustbin of history. This decade saw a transformation in yet unemployed & poor hero into a rich & confident personality. Indian masses were growing better, economically, and this change has to be reflected on the silver screen. Movies like Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, were all comprising of an affluent actor-actress pair. Coming to political scenario, India was confronted with new villain- terrorism. And films like Roza, Maachis, Safarosh and Dil Se depicted this situation adroitly on the screen. Another startling feature of this decade was rise of communalism. Babri demolition in 1992, Bombay riots & Bombay bomb blasts were all pointers of newfound hard line Hindutva & fundamentalist Islam. Our film makers acutely painted this picture in movie like Bombay.

In the new millennium, the world came to terms with a cocky India bulging with a bare chest confidence. Films became a reflection of confident India. Sex had no longer been a taboo to be discussed. We had movies like Murder and Khwahish, in which a bold and daring Mallika Sherawat represented new age Indian girl. On one hand masterpieces like Company and Satya were denoting the stronghold of underworld, while on the other hand Ganga Jal and Omkara had shown the rule of ‘bahubalis’ in U.P. and Bihar. The rising forex reserve, second fastest GDP growth rate, India Inc.’s insatiable shopping spree of foreign companies and the élan with which it has learned to extract maximum possible mileage from every global power without committing her allegiance to any, all point towards a mature and a formidable India.

If in the 70s and 80s, Bollywood was a reflection of society then in this millennium Bollywood is redefining how India should be. If Lagaan catapulted India to the final frontier of the Oscar nominations, Dil Chahta Hai echoed self-assured, cool and keep-smiling, live-today mantra of Indian youth. While Black, Nishabd and Black Friday vindicated that even Bollywood films can deal with complex issues and still offer a visual treat to the audience, Lakshya and Rang De Basanti depicted the maturing of the young India ready to die for a national cause.

And thus one can say that a movie is not only a visual treat to its audience but it is also an account of the societal, economical and political set up in which a person is living. It reflects the internal feelings and expressions of the public at large and compels the society to visualize its face in this mirror, called cinema.