Lage Raho Munnabhai

 Sandeep Bajeli

Maati pukare, tujhe Desh pukare, Aja re bapu aja re…
(Our country’s soil implores you, O Gandhi
come to our rescue and shows us the path)

These are the opening lines of the song from the much talked about film Lage Raho Munnabhai (Carry on Munnabhai), henceforth LRMB, that aptly capture its central premise. Harking back to the ideals of M.K Gandhi it comes both as a social lament about the loss of social ideals and a moral indictment of the society for its failure to uphold the values that inspired a generation during freedom struggle. The song expresses utopian hope of Gandhism to redeem humanity. Even as the film recycles popular myth about Gandhi just as earlier films based on ‘Gandhian melodrama’ did, it nonetheless imbued with freshness and originality. Without sounding didactic and pedantic, it shows how a political idiom could be reformulated and deployed to communicate with the people in their own language. In that it attempts to rediscover the relevance of Gandhism and reconfigure it to provide solution to the problems of the intermediary class in the era of globalisation.

Directed by Rajkumar Hirani LRMB tells the story of a lovable goon Munnabhai (Sanjay Dutt) who has fallen in love with the voice of a Radio-Jockey, Jahnavi (Vidya Balan). A quiz show on radio about Gandhi gives Munna an opportunity to meet his dream woman. There he blurts out that he is a history professor when Jahnavi asks him about what he does for a living. Munnabhai real problem starts when now impressed Jahnavi invites him for a lecture on Gandhi at her bungalow where senior citizens thrown out by their children also live. The only choice left for Munna is to read about Gandhi to keep up the pretence of being a history professor. It is while reading about Gandhi in a dust covered library that Munnabhai gains ‘enlightenment’. Due to intensive reading there occurs a ‘chemical imbalance’ in the brain of an exhausted Munnabhai. He starts ‘seeing’ Gandhi. The surreal encounter of the meeting with Gandhi lefts him all excited and confident. Gandhi promises to help him whenever he calls him. In a way the film attempts to rescue Gandhism that has largely been relegated to moth eaten library books or as an official mantra to be remembered in state’s official functions into a living action oriented thought.

The success of the film fueled renewed interest and further debate about the relevance of Gandhi today. It also drew comparison with another hit film Rang de Basanti of the year which is said to highlight the contribution of revolutionary hero Bhagat Singh. Polemics were raised in the mainstream media about the diametrically opposite message the two films convey. The debate was posited as Bhagat Singh path of violence as opposed to Gandhi’s path of non-violence. Displaying a formal understanding of both violence and non-violence the debates in large part failed to highlight the main question, the question of differing world view. How the two contending ideologies reflect the outlook of two different social forces and guided by different methods and programmes keeping in view its specific class interests. History tells us not only the means adopted by the Gandhi and Bhagat Singh were antagonistic in nature but also their vision of restructuring society. While LRMB received stupendous response and praises for its humour and social criticism, it is nonetheless marked by limitations in its attempts to provide solution to the social problems that demands radical solutions. Its solution, therefore, appears simplistic which tends to reinforce dominant ideology.

At Jahnavi’s house Munnabhai successfully posed himself as a Gandhian among the men of old generation who cherishes Gandhian values and are pained at the breakdown of moral values in the society. It is here Munna delivers a fiery speech about the sad state of affairs prevailing in the country. Munna’s line ‘Desh apna ho gaya par log paraye ho gaye’ implicates everyone for the mess from the inefficient corrupt politicians in particular to the people in general who have completely disregarded Gandhian way of life. After gaining respect for his creative interpretation of Gandhism and displaying unflinching commitment towards Gandhian thought Munnabhai is invited to the radio station to act as an RJ who can give advice to the problems of the listeners. He also starts his own practice of Gandhism, innovatively called Gandhigiri.

Being a goon himself he has to grapple with the self-contradictions that he has to face during his own practice of Gandhigiri, he however manages to adhere to the set path. This, in fact, is the most interesting aspect of the film how a deviant of the society, who uses unethical means to earn money, emerges as a conscience raiser. Through his active involvement in resolving the problems of the listeners he soon becomes a popular and endearing figure. It is he who issues moral appeals, exposes obstructionist ideas, and devises non-violent strategies and rules of human conduct to maintain harmony in interpersonal relationships and between social classes. The transformation of Munnabhai from a goon to a proponent of Gandhism shows how the force of ideas can play a decisive role in changing an individual outlook.

Victor D’Souza (Jimmy Shergill), who has lost his entire father’s money in the share market, calls up Munna to seek a solution for his problem. Finding himself in a dire situation he contemplates committing suicide. Munna admonishes Victor for this and advices him to speak the truth in front of his father as the only way out. Truth telling is an article of faith in Gandhism. While truth has a subjective component it also has an objective one. It is by comprehending the real objective truth one can arrive at a fuller understanding about the cause of the problem. Victor’s problem is, strictly speaking, not of his own making. It is a consequence of the function of an institution which is characterised by big fish (speculators) gobbling up the small fish (small investors) for its capital accumulation. The problem of the individual is therefore is social that can be understood and in a fundamental sense resolved by taking into account these external factors. The film subsumes the interconnections of the individual with the larger social formation and how it shapes, conditions and even determines the very choices he or she makes. Thus it leads to shifting the blame of the institutions exclusively on the individuals for being part of it. A much chastened Victor promises to work hard and earn his living as a taxi-driver. Gandhi in the background proffers a ‘sound’ advice, ‘work hard and tighten your purse’. The much glorified ideal of a self-made individuals who attain prosperity by hard work, thrift etc. is always highlighted in class society. And since the system provides ‘opportunity to all’, it is the individual who is to be blamed if he/she is unable to find a gainful employment. This naturalised assumption masks the fact that the system is incapable of providing employment to all. Victor, therefore, has to prove his worthiness to the society by engaging in a productive labour.

One of the brilliant examples of the non-violent tactics which LRMB highlights is to shame the corrupt official for his acts in front of the people. A senior citizen whose pension gets blocked by a corrupt clerk, now demands bribe to get it released. As per as Munna’s advice he goes to the clerk and starts taking off things including his clothes and putting it on the table listing out the cost of each item so as to cover up his bribe. This creates a huge commotion around and visibly embarrassed clerk has no other option but to release his pension. Munnabhai, thus, shows the indispensability of Gandhian tactics by effectively testing and verifying it in practice. While individual action in certain cases becomes a decisive factor in the resolution of piecemeal grievances. However, no matter how noble individual efforts are, it will not only be limited in its scope but also may prove to be diversionary if it fails to address the real problem. It is the withdrawal of the state in providing social security measures including attacks on the pension benefits to the senior citizen that fundamentally constitutes a bigger problem than corruption. The film thus addresses the symptoms not the diseases.

A turning point occurs in the film when Lucky Singh (Boman Irani), a builder who utilises the services of Munnabhai for his nefarious activities, forcibly takes possession of Jahanvi’s house while she along with Munna and the old men are holidaying in Goa. When Munna comes to know about it he is filled with remorse and anger as his own men are responsible for the act. Munna is in real dilemma. As an advocator of Gandhism, he cannot force Lucky Singh to give out the keys back to the rightful owner who now threatens to expose his real identity to Jahanvi. This inflames Munna further who vows to use the strategy of Gandhigiri to get the keys back. Towards this endeavour, he utilises radio as a platform to experiment with his technique of Gandhigiri. As a part of Satyagraha he hits out on the road along with Jahanvi and the senior citizens right across the road where Lucky Singh resides. Acting upon the instruction a security guard attacks Munnabhai with a baton. Munna gleefully turn the other cheek. After further attack Munna realises he has no third cheek to offer. To make him stop he hits him back much to the disapproval of Gandhi. It is interesting that Munna is not shown to be an unqualified proponent of non-violence. He breaks with the rigid frame work of Satyagraha as and when the situation demands, in that he acts as a pragmatist. Earlier in the film he thrashes a recalcitrant son who is unwilling to come to celebrate his father’s birthday. He puts him upside down till he wriggles out the promise to him that he will go for the party much against his wishes. Later in the film Munna and his right-hand Circuit (Arshad Warsi) storms the radio station. Circuit whips out a gun to scare away all those who were trying to stop them. In that context dogmatic adherence to non-violence would not have served their purpose. The bad son sees reason only when he is turned upside down by Munna. Gandhi’s adherent has to take into account the objective factors to decide whether they have to pursue a course of action in a non-violent manner or use force.

 While it is true that social tension could be resolved within the framework based on non-violence achieving everlasting peace in the society cannot be brought without upturning the institution based on violence and privileges. Peace is must but there could be no peace without justice. Gandhi reposes faith in pricking conscience of the oppressor by willingness to undergo untold suffering in the belief there may occur a change of heart of the oppressor. It will be highly misleading and simplistic to believe that oppressed in human history have got their rights due to change of heart theory.  Does British colonialist give freedom to India because it went through change of heart? The Christian preaching of brotherhood and oral teachings against killings could not convert American imperialism to adhere to its belief. The creed of non-violence collapses in the context of a fascist state where any semblance of protests is sought to be crushed with iron hand or in the feudal country-side like Bihar where private militias of upper caste massacres defenceless poverty stricken dalits in collusion with the state. There opposition to the ‘evil’ with any means becomes a necessity for self-defence and self-preservation. The ideology of non-violence tends to equate violence of both oppressor and oppressed in the same light. As a creed it ultimately tends to criminalises those who wages armed struggle against injustice. The preoccupation with non-violence as the defining aspect of the ‘ethical’ means presupposes that it will necessarily lead to ‘good’ ends. It could also lead to other way round also. What is needed to be probed here is the class nature of a ‘good’ society. Will the society run by supreme moral order render unequal power relations obsolete or will it magical dissolves the acute class contradictions?

The builder who takes illegal possession of Jahanvi’s house appears more as a buffoon in the film rather than a villain. The policeman is shown turning misty eyed on hearing Munnabhai forceful moral appeals. The construction of positive images in the film could be seem as an attempt to validate Gandhian thesis of change of heart that rests on the foundation that human beings are morally good. The emphasis, therefore, is on appealing to the good will of an individual. An oppressor could be made to realise his/her wrong path who could then finally with a change of heart acknowledge the problem and rectify it in the interest both the groups. That individual is not abstract individual he/she is an ensemble of social relations holding outlook of certain classes or a representative of certain groups is glossed over. The film does not take any of the questions into account because it sees change in society through change in individual consciousness and not as a result of the transformation of the underlying material reality that leads to qualitative changes.

LRMB is one of the rare films made that raises social concerns of our time. However the thematic concerns it raises and the direction in which it gets resolved conforms to the middle classes position and outlook. It serves to depoliticise the deeply political issues and effectively absorbs and accommodates the voices who are affected by the prevailing order under the rubric of broad class unity. The anger of the middle classes that could be directed against the anti-people state and its institution is diverted along an altogether different channel. The film traces the root cause of the conflict in the domain of falling morality and ethical principals on the part of individual subject. It is due to this understanding that the film does not even talk of reforming the state and its institution for it  believes that if the individual pursues an ideal path then the conflicting interest could be resolved both in the individual and collective interest. People are not homogenous they are divided into classes holding conflicting economic interest that turn antagonistic in certain context. The film does not take cognisance to the central feature of class division in society and seeks to hoist common morality above classes. Thus the abstract humanism the film teaches becomes yet another name for class reconciliation and compromise leading to the perpetuation of status-quo. For the middle class who are witnessing the socio-cultural deformities in society Gandhism appears as a ready-made antidote to all the present ills. As an ‘ambivalent class’ it wavers to formulate a radical proposition due to its own stakes in the existing order however it cannot escape oppressive reality of its own precarious position. It, perhaps, one of the reasons why Gandhism continues to exert considerable influence on the minds of educated elite who regards it as the best framework to address many of today’s pressing problems. The film not only obfuscates the real causes of the problem leaving behind the fundamental social and political questions of our time, it also relies on such an ambivalent class for reforms in society.

At a time when class contradictions are further worsening, the much exalted alternative that LRMB offers to humanity serves to channelise and deflect growing discontent from below along a peaceful line in the name of maintaining harmonious social whole in society. For those who have no stakes in the system, the dispossessed majority Gandhism not only becomes inadequate to explain the truth about the system but also incompatible with the vision that believes only with the radical rupture in the existing order can the highest social ideal of achieving a just and humane society is possible. Any pious aspiration of constructing an ethical society in the existing grossly unequal one would be therefore reformist and illusory.

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