Damn the TRP, tell the truth (Dawn (Pakistan))

THE brouhaha over Salman Khans conviction for running over pavement dwellers 13 years ago, killing one and injuring some others, can be all too easily explained in the simplistic rich-poor binary. It took over a decade for the sentence to be pronounced. It required a couple of hours for the actor to be set free on bail. I believe the movie icon represents a popular culture, which needs explanation. There is a context to his personality and fame.

I see the rise of Salman Khans self-absorbed persona as an aspect of Indias contrived political insularity with the troubled world near and far. The insularity became more pronounced when the countrys free market reforms made a few citizens rich, and another few very rich. The self-regarding swagger resembled in its glee the cat that got the cream.

Only when a submarine blew up accidently on the Mumbai shores or a military plane crashed unexpectedly near Agra, and there was need to blame someone else for the fiasco, would the headlines grudgingly give a clue to the imported plumage. Military hardware integrated the national sinews with foreign testosterone factories. There were other new consumerist linkages that replaced the old world camaraderie between newly freed peoples.

Salman Khan is not equipped to see it that way. However, had the much-reviled Josef Stalin lost the pivotal battle of Second World War to Hitler all this would have been another story. The bloodiest sector of the war was in Stalingrad, where over two million perished mostly in hand-to-hand combat and by starvation. Had the wrong side won, the story of the subsequent Delhi-Moscow bonding would be anybodys guess. The birth of Bangladesh might have been a different story, as would Pakistans coming about.

Salman Khans self-absorbed persona is an aspect of Indias contrived political insularity with the troubled world near and far.

These and other counterfactual propositions, queries from history, did once trouble and engage the curious Indian middle class. There was a time when the battle of Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam mattered to ordinary Indian people. It made the front-page headlines in the national papers. Julius Nyerere and Haile Selassie from Africa were household names in small towns. Nelson Mandela was lurking in the shadows to be yet revealed as a hero.

Progressive citizens took sides with Pakistani partisans battling Gen Ayub Khans military dictatorship. Ordinary Indians debated Nikita Khrushchevs secret speech of 1956 and what his de-Stalinsation programme meant for the USSR and the rest of the world. School-goers memorised Kennedys inaugural address “We observe today, not a victory of a party, but a celebration of freedom.” The Indian state of Kerala got the worlds first democratically elected communist government.

That was in 1957. Barely two decades on came the Salim-Javed genre of popular lumpen culture in cinema. It spawned a new meaning of nationhood, in which the hoi polloi embraced vigilantism as remedy for official tardiness in delivering justice. Manmohan Singhs free market reforms turned one more screw in the coffin of the liberal dream. The nation was dismembered into gangs of corporate predators and religious vigilantes on the one hand, resisted by motley groups of peasants and NGOs. How many charged-up star-struck movie fans were involved in the mayhem in Gujarat? A sociological study is required. Indian cinema has inspired and nudged the nations politics from the south to the north.

In the post-independence romance the worldview in the tinsel town was idealistic and Jawaharlal Nehru was the darling of the movie stars, and he theirs. Movie buff Meghnad Desai wrote Dilip Kumar: Nehrus hero. The landlord and the village bania were the durable villains. Dev Anand made two anti-war films. Dilip Kumar belted out passionate words against stealing from the poor to fight wars in Shabnam. Raj Kapoor sang compassionately: “Kisi ka dard mil sakey to le udhaar.” (Embrace someone elses pain even if the cost is steep. Thats the way to live.)

Khans conviction for drunk driving and running is of a piece with the narrative of much though not all of our cinema today. Of course, there are excellent exceptions, but Salman Khan and many others are not part of them.

A myth is cited all too often that cinema is driven by the cine-goers demands. There is a similar lie trotted out about TV. It is driven by TRP ratings, we are told. I remember what the legendary film musician Naushad said when he introduced Hindustani classical music for the first time in a movie called Baiju Bawra. “The producer was jumpy. He said people would break their heads over this heavy music. I told him people are not born from the womb to like any particular kind of music. We guide them to like what we want them to like.” Baiju Bawra was a hit and has remained a reference point for its music.

My question is a simple one. If Salman Khans case drives TRP ratings for TV, was it the absence TRP potential that the channels blanked out the story about Mukesh Ambanis son who was alleged to be involved in a Salman-like accident in an Aston Martin, which he reportedly drove?

Why did the media not highlight the case of politically connected Manu Sharma, who is undergoing life term for killing model Jessica Lal but was out on furlough reportedly to get married on April 22?

Indian movies often show court trials as farcical and judges as incompetent or corrupt. There is a less reported truth.

A woman judge who sentenced Modi acolytes Maya Kondnani and Babu Bajrangi to life imprisonment for their role in the Gujarat killings has been receiving death threats. While she has pleaded for security the duo she convicted were recently freed on bail. So lets not go on about Salman Khan. He is part of the new system, the swagger included.