Friday, May 16, 2008

Very good article on understanding Thackrey-Bachchan conflict in a socilological context


A city has always been a site for competing metaphors. Novelists and journalists in their writings have captured this drama. Gunter Grass and Dominic Lapierre did it for Calcutta, one pronouncing it a crematorium of death and the other labelling it a ‘City of Joy.’ In a similar manner, Mumbai too has become a pretext for competing claims and narratives. Only this time, the text is not a novel by Suketu Mehta or Salman Rushdie, it is a populist drama enacted in the open, with the media as storytellers. The impetus is Raj Thackeray’s attack on Amitabh Bachchan. In this essay, one is not interested in them as individuals. One is encountering them as persona, ritual enactments of competing visions of the city.
The first model embodies an idea of the homogenous city, where like reproduces like, as in a dull utopia. To the homogeneity, one adds a territoriality where the city surrounds itself with a cordon sanitaire. It seeks a ghettoisation of the populace, ensuring that nothing new, nothing different can enter. It is a populist ritual of pollution control where the stranger as the migrant, the refugee, or the poor is banned. It is a sanitisation of the rhetoric of nativism, security and populism. It is dystopian vision presented as a guarantee of safety as dullness.
Raj Thackeray is an embodiment of this domain. The only difference between his uncle and him is that Bal Thackeray appears to believe in it while Raj sees it as a legacy, a political real estate he must expand and exploit. This is more instrumental, more desperate, more cynical, more fascist. In Bollywood terms, it is a script for a B-grade movie with C-grade stars. The political trailer would be more worthwhile than the movie itself, moving between the redundancy of boredom and violence.
Counterposing this at the popular, populist, folk and mass media levels is the vision of Amitabh Bachchan. I am not interested in Bachchan and his personal forays into politics. I am interested in the Bachchan of folklore, the man and his sense of the city. The image of Bachchan evokes the alternative politics of the city as plural, diverse, violent, mobile, hardheaded, hardhearted, sentimental and creative.
Mumbai inspires and invites the migrant and the stranger but no one will deny it is a hard city. But as Bachchan and others show repeatedly, it is not the hardness of granite or of the heart, it is a demand for toughness, for survival, an initiation rite that demands that you survive the city. It is not the hardness of closure, denial, and refusal. It is a generous city which thinks dogs in the manger are not genuinely city-bred.
Raj Thackeray presents the vision of the nukkad strongman in a designer kurta offering safety in return for a policing contract. It is a Hobbesian world which offers city life as ‘solitary, poor, nasty, short and brutish’ if one does not accept their vision. It is a ghettoised imagination. The sadness is that the Shiv Sena has the same traumatic emptiness of McCarthyism. Put it on television, expose it on media as a documentary, and it seems hollow. No bit actor is less convincing that Raj Thackeray. In fact, some of his followers carry on as if they could enact his part better.
Bollywood shows that this is a notion of the city in corsets. Bollywood needs the genetics of difference. In fact, in many ways its original, the Bombay Talkies, embodied Hindu-Muslim unity before and after Partition. Bollywood is a salute to every outsider, migrant, stranger who seeks to come home to the city. It is a parallel vision that the Shiv Sena finds threatening and which it tries to control.
Happily myths don’t succumb as easily to the petty politician. Shiv Sena is in Mumbai but is hardly representative of it. Bollywood is in Mumbai but celebrates both the city and India. It is local, national, global and cosmopolitan. The battle at the level of myth is uneven even if the Sena digs hard into local legend and folklore.
Thackeray and Bachchan have become inadvertently competing models of the city. The first is ghettoised, farcical, threatening, and the second is generous, thoughtful, realistic and yet celebratory about the possibilities of the city. Thackeray threatens democracy through populism; the other expands democracy as script and drama even if it is a bumbling one.
One must be grateful it is an open drama being consumed by millions across the country. This binary model of the city raises a futuristic either/or. It raises the question of how a society responds to scarcity or relative deprivation. It is not the poor who create this idiot politics but a middle class seeing its part of the cake shrink. Thackeray’s is a politics of jealousy, envy playing to the politics of scarcity. It plays the idea of the sons of the soil to show it has no sense of the soil called the city. It is the idiom of security battling the metaphors of sustainability.
Democracy is a world of hard choices, even cruel ones. It also allows bit players a chance at the big time. The beauty is democracy does not eliminate either set of players. It puts them in a public arena asking the spectator to make choices. Democracy realises a city of spectators is also a city of critics and actors. Mumbai has set the melodrama and is asking India to decide. Raj Thackeray or Amitabh Bachchan as ‘Bombay meri jaan’?

1 comment:

SOCIeOPATH said...

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