A Bharat for the working class

Its primary audiences are the semi-urban masses who speak English haltingly, and not fluently like those who love 3 Idiots and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara

Salman Khan has a special place in Indian film today. He reached the pinnacle of his career when Hindi cinema had split into two categories: Anglophone (3 Idiots, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara), targeting English-speaking audiences with greater spending power in the global age, and non-Anglophone, best defined as one that resists English-speaking pressures (Dabangg).

Salman Khan rules in the latter category, which is why his protagonists hesitate while speaking English, pronouncing ‘confuse’ as ‘confuj,’ as in Dabangg.

Although with the migration of people to the metropolises, it would be difficult to segregate the rustic from the urban, one might propose that Salman Khan’s cinema is more semi-urban than urban. His latest offering Bharat (directed by Ali Abbas Zafar) is doing well at the box office and this is not surprising since it targets its audiences effectively. Bharat is a welcome film today and this is an attempt to say why.     

The story of the film is narrated by a senior citizen today and begins in 1947, when Bharat, still a boy, is named by his father Gautam Kumar after the future nation. Gautam Kumar is in charge of a railway station in future Pakistan when a train arrives laden with corpses. The family escapes to India, but Gautam Kumar and his daughter Gudiya are lost in the melee. He entrusts Bharat with taking care of the family, and Bharat and his mother move in with their aunt who owns ‘Hind Ration Shop’ in Old Delhi.

The family is not well off and Bharat becomes a stunt motorcyclist in a circus in the famous ‘well of death’. When the circus shuts down, he seeks employment in the Gulf, working with a team engaged in oil exploration. His chief engineer there is Kumud Raina (Katrina Kaif). Bharat takes issue with the whites, his masters, when they treat Indians badly. He later rescues his team from a mining disaster. He thus wins Kumud Raina’s love and she publicly proposes marriage to him. Bharat is honoured but he declines since he still has his family to take care of.  

The act of naming the protagonist after the future nation spells allegory and we expect Bharat’s life to mirror the nation’s. But instead of Bharat playing a key role in history, what we are shown are episodes involving his adventures outside India, the justification being that he needs the money to run the household in Delhi.

After doing a bit of oil exploration, he joins the merchant navy and conducts himself heroically against Somali pirates, not fighting, but earning their respect by acknowledging their comparable skin colour and discovering their shared love for Amitabh Bachchan. Later on, when Kumud Raina is a top executive in Zee Television and they launch a campaign to reunite Partition families, Bharat is able to locate his sister Gudiya, now in London, the adopted daughter of Britishers, and married.  

If one were to look at how the film addresses its audiences, it must be among the very few that takes pride in physical work instead of showing it as ‘hardship’, a throwback to Brahminism. The camera focuses on Salman Khan’s shoulder muscles as he strains to pull, and one imagines the gazes of his audiences converging there. Still, physical work having no glamour in India, the film hits on foreign locations to show it is done, a wily ploy.

Where Anglophone films might have a London-based financial executive to showcase foreign locations, Bharat is an oilfield worker and sailor. The executive Kumud Raina falling in love with the working-class hero is not allowed to become marriage; it continues as a ‘live-in’ relationship. This again should be seen as an effort at making the hero working-class with no intention of climbing out. The property the family owns is also a ‘ration shop’ with weaker-section associations. When Indians are ill-treated in the oilfield, Bharat speaks out in English but haltingly. Here is a hero who could learn English but refuses to, since his primary loyalty is to those who do not speak it.

In intent, Bharat is ‘nationalist’ rather than ‘patriotic’. The two terms have been used variously, but, to make a distinction, ‘nationalism’ celebrates nationhood while ‘patriotism’ is directed outward against a deemed enemy. Going by this, ‘patriotism’ is a new phenomenon since even Upkar and Border had other emphases. In both films, Pakistan was only incidental and not implicated in the plot, but this year’s biggest blockbuster Uri: The Surgical Strike is different – in that Pakistan is made central.

On comparing Uri and Bharat, two things stand out. The first is that Bharat tries to look at India in the world while Uri looks at it only in relation to Pakistan, aiming much lower. The second aspect relates to the patriotic Uri targeting Anglophones audiences, given the title and chunks of English spoken.

Bharat describes workers while Uri deals only with the highest echelons---virtually everyone in it is within handshaking distance of the prime minister. Nationalism, because it is motivated by a sense of common nationhood, is arguably a more laudable emotion than patriotism, which proceeds by demonising an external enemy.

It may be politically significant that a film primarily addressing the working-class is ‘nationalistic’ while one targeting a better-placed and more educated public is ‘patriotic’.  

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