Cinema, Satyagraha and everday life

- By Pranta Pratik Patnaik*

Gandhi cartoon

One of the most significant phenomena of our time has been the development of the cinema from a mere art form to a potential subject for study in terms of the issues that it raises and the supposedly influences it has on the spectators. It is now conceived as a versatile art form. Cinema not only provides a site for entertainment, but also a platform to reinforce certain values and ideals. In the same vein, if we trace the history of Indian cinema, we would find that Gandhian values and ideals have made their presence felt, to some degree, in Hindi films. Any movie on the Indian independence theme or any biography on a real life historical character around the independence era is incomplete without the mention of Mahatma Gandhi. This is not to deny the fact that there has always been a shift in the themes of Hindi Cinema which has in turn kept the Gandhian principles out of focus. On the other hand, it should not imply the complete ignorance or disrespect for Gandhian values. The paper looks into one such film - Lage Raho Munna Bhai (LRMB), released in the year 2006, which locates Gandhian values in the contemporary setting. The film revolves around the virtues and values of Mahatma Gandhi, propagated through the narrative, without merely being reduced into didactic preaching. The Gandhian era is believed to have been evoked in the 21st century through this film.

A sociological understanding of Satyagraha depicted in the film has been attempted by interviewing a sample of college goingstudents in New Delhi. Such an academic exercise was considered useful because sociology teaches us that films are not consumed passively by the audiences. Instead, they can be subjected to multiple interpretations by the active viewers. Usually, sociologically directed studies on cinema have either examined films as reflections of society and of social change or as articulations of identity. In this process, audiences are either invisible or relegated to the background as aggregate factors of class or gender. It therefore becomes essential to look for the multiple meanings of 'Satyagraha' as interpreted by the students and also the degree of reliability on such practice in their day-to-day activities.

The rationale behind considering Lage Raho Munnabhai (LRMB) as an example to examine the concept of Satyagraha and its meaning in contemporary India is because of its popularity and the potential use of Gandhian values in settling conflicts in everyday life. The film bases its story on a Gandhian theme where the intended message is that ultimately truth wins over falsehood and non-violent resistance over the use of brute force. The sample for this study was drawn from 60 students belonging to both the sexes in the age group of 17-21 years. All the students were attending undergraduate college in New Delhi, though in different years.

This paper attempts not only to make an analysis of the film and the discussion related to it but also to examine the relevance of concepts like 'Satyagraha' and 'non-violence' in the everyday life of the college going students. An analysis of the film is done to make the readers acquaint themselves with the storyline and the academic debates regarding the representation of Gandhian values in the film and the multiple interpretations of the film it can generate. This not only makes the study appear more sociological, but also puts forth an argument that film studies need not be confined to the writers or director's intentions and motives. Nor  should they be put under mere content analysis and academic debates; rather it requires understanding of the film and the meaning it conveys to the audiences.


LRMB: The Storyline and its Critical Appraisal

The film Lage Raho Munna Bhai advocates a non-violent approach to resolve conflicts. In a sequel to the super hit Munna Bhai MBBS (2003), the now famous duo of taporis (small-time street hoods), Munna Bhai (Actor Sanjay Dutt), and his sidekick, Circuit (Actor Arshad Warsi), return to propagate what the filmmaker perceives to be the message of Mahatma Gandhi. Munna Bhai falls in love with Jhanvi (Vidya Balan), a radio jockey whom he would meet in person if he were to win a quiz on Gandhi that she is conducting over the radio. He wins the quiz by kidnapping and arm-twisting some history teachers and is invited to the show for a live interview. He meets her on the show pretending to be a history professor whose mission is to spread 'Gandhigiri' among the youth by using tapori lingo. Impressed with Munna Bhai's dedication to Gandhi, Jhanvi invites him to speak to a bunch of elderly men who, after being abandoned by their own children, live in her house. Left with no option but to study, he immerses himself in the dusty books housed in a dilapidated library devoted to Gandhi's life and thought. After three nights of continuous studying, Gandhi (Actor Dileep Prabhavalkar) shows up to meet Munna Bhai. The only problem is that no one else can see Gandhi; so everyone thinks that Munna Bhai is hallucinating. S. Ganesh raises certain critical issues related to the depiction of Gandhian ideals in the film. According to him, LRMB pleads powerfully for the Gandhian alternative. The experiment with truth by Munna Bhai starts with passion for an unseen girl. So this version of Gandhi's truth, he points out, involves an opportunity to woo a girl, followed by hallucination.

Subsequently, Gandhi becomes Munna Bhai's mentor and advisor. With Gandhi's help, Munna manages to impress the elderly group, thereby consolidating his reputation as a great Gandhian. Thus begins Munna Bhai's journey of discovering the value of Gandhigiri as he embarks on solving all problems through non-violent means. Therefore, when Lucky Singh (Boman Irani), an unscrupulous contractor, deviously takes over the home of Jhanvi and the elderly inmates, Munna Bhai refuses to react violently. Instead, he stages a peaceful Satyagraha in front of Lucky's house and sends him flowers every day. However, Munna Bhai's conversion to this peaceful direct action does not last long. During his peaceful protest, Munna Bhai meekly takes in one big blow from the guard outside the villain's house, where he is camping. But on the second blow, Munna Bhai retaliates with a powerful blow that sends the guard flying to the ground, saying that Gandhi did not say what to do after receiving the second blow. This particular scene, according to Ganesh, is one of the contrarian theme of the movie because on the one hand, non-violence is being preached, but on the other it also conveys the message that one cannot hold on to Gandhian principles persistently. Munna Bhai no doubt makes use of non-violence whenever he wishes, but also displays equalstrength to retaliate thereby brushing all Gandhian values to the background. It is so because Gandhi believed, 'Satyagraha means fighting oppression through voluntary suffering. There can be no question here of making anyone else suffer.'

As the story of the film unfolds, through Jhanvi's radio show, Munna Bhai and Gandhi sort out listeners' problems by suggesting non-violent means of protest, which seems to work like magic. For instance, he saves Victor (Actor Jimmy Shergill) from committing suicide and prompts him to confess blowing up money in the stock market to his father. Another scene that was mostly liked by my respondents was when an old man being harassed by the government official while applying for pension, takes off his clothes as he could not afford to pay the bribe in order to get his pension. Overcoming fear is one lesson that Munna Bhai imparts successfully through the radio programme.

The final reckoning comes when Gandhi persuades Munna Bhai to reveal his real identity to Jhanvi. Once he does that, his fear of Lucky Singh's threat to expose him vanishes as he is no longer subject to Lucky Singh's blackmailing. However, all ends well with Lucky Singh having a change of heart when Gandhigiri saves his reputation and his daughter from a bad marriage. The house is restored to the elderly and Jhanvi accepts Munna Bhai for what he is. In the very last sequence, Lucky Singh immerses himself in Gandhian thought in the same dusty library only to have the great man materialise out of thin air once again.

Rajkumar Hirani's Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006) centres around the problems in  contemporary society and draws inspiration from history. For Ganesh, the film has trivialized the role of Gandhi and he goes to the extent of saying that the film has turned 'history into myth'. The use of history, however, can range from the reactionary, to the nostalgic, to the progressive. This latter use attempts to redeem the unrealized and repressed liberative dreams of the past that lurk under the realities of the present. The present essay centers on the film Lage Raho Munna Bhai in terms of this progressive use of history, i.e., on those critical representations which denaturalize India's turn towards neo-liberalism by showing that the present moment is not one in which history is erased; rather, it is one in which history has returned with a vengeance, rubbing the face of the nation's rulers in the class character of the Indian nation state.

Ghosh and Babu, in response to Ganesh's article, argue that the Gandhi of Lage Raho Munna Bhai is represented not as a historical figure; rather, as an icon of popular culture. They believed that Munna Bhai's Gandhi was someone with whom the contemporary masses can relate to because it is more in the nature of the conscience personified than some distant historical figure. In this context, one is reminded of the compartmentalization of Gandhi made by Ashish Nandy in an essay 'Gandhi after Gandhi'. For Ashish Nandy, the first Gandhi is the Gandhi of the Indian state and Indian nationalism, the second Gandhi is that of the Gandhian who is not interested in politics. The third Gandhi is the Gandhi of the "ragamuffins, eccentrics and the unpredictable" and "is more hostile to Coca-Cola than to Scotch whisky and considers the local versions of Coca-Cola more dangerous than imported ones". Finally, the fourth Gandhi walks the mean streets of the world threatening the status quo and tackling the mean bullies in every area of life. Ghosh and Babu believe that Munna Bhai's Gandhi is closer to the fourth Gandhi. However looking at the responses of the students about the meaning of satyagraha and the relevance of Gandhi, one would come to the conclusion that, in some sense, perhaps all these versions of Gandhi, given by Ashish Nandy, are alive today, each with his own eccentricities. The real problem arises when college going youth are not sure of the use of Gandhian values in their everyday life even though they are familiar with it.


LRMB: Through the lens of the younger generation

This section of the paper attempts to reflect on the views of the students from a college in Delhi as to how they relate themselves with such images glorifying the idea of Satyagraha in their real lives. The purpose behind this exercise is to see the relevance of the idea of 'Satyagraha' among the younger generation. One basic assumption of this study was that audiences are not passive while watching films, rather are involved in what can be said as active viewing. Active viewing constructs a particular relationship with the film - for instance, the film is not accepted as a "'finished product', rather audiences use the film as raw material with which to construct their own experience, in the process reconstructing the film. Consequently, the film that emerges is the result of audience interaction rather than a mere construction of the film-maker for passive consumption. In this context, cinema does not provide a homogenizing effect; rather, plural audiences construct differentiated experiences. The explanation that viewers are 'resisting' the 'dominant messages' in the film, an explanation given in cultural studies and in the interpretive tradition of audience research, responsible for theories of decoding of texts, merely polarizes and simplifies the various ways audiences consume a cultural product, and may attribute an intentionality that is questionable. Through focus group discussions and by asking the students to fill questionnaires, wherever possible, I was able to collect the views of 60 respondents /students.

It was quite evident from the focused group discussion that even though the students did not know much about the personal details of Gandhi, they were not unaware of Gandhian ideals and values or 'Gandhigiri', as one of the students pointed out. When I asked them to mention the year in which Gandhi was born and where he did his first Satyagraha, it was difficult for them to come up with answers. Most of them (48 respondents, i.e. 80%) acknowledged that the film LRMB has introduced them to the idea of Satyagraha. Though the respondents perceived Satyagraha as a non-violent form of protest they put it in their own words as follows:

'Satyagraha means 'agraha' (willingness or Quest) for 'satya' (truth), that is, quest for truth.'

'It means soul force rather than physical force.' 'Satyagraha need not be associated with cowardice, rather it is a brave struggle for justice.'

'Satyagraha means following the path of truth and not fearing the consequences that follow while following this path.'

It should be noted that Mahatma Gandhi was dissatisfied with non-violence and associated terms and so, following a search to find a more appropriate description, he decided on Satyagraha as an alternative. Its literal meaning is "holding on to truth and it means, therefore, Truth-force where truth is the soul or spirit. It is, therefore, known as "soul-force". Reid argues that soul force implies "a more assertive, positive stand than non-violence - that we rely on the strength of truth rather than on physical force".

It has become a well-established truism that the spectators' engagement with film texts or any other cultural form is complex and unpredictable. The same was witnessed by the views of my respondents, who appreciated the effort of the movie to bring in Gandhian values in a contemporary setting, but they were quite apprehensive whether such values could really work in their daily lives. I would like to quote some of their responses, which were as follows: "The movie gives a good message in a comical way; but in reality such things would never happen. Can we expect a local don (Munna Bhai in the film) to follow Gandhigiri? If he follows Gandhigiri he won't be called don. The film has romanticized the notion of'don'."

"The movie portrays the principles and ideals of Mahatma Gandhi which refreshes our sleepy minds to wake up. But it's a movie after all. We know good things will happen at the end. But is such a pattern of thinking possible?"

"A commercial yet thought provoking movie. It led the United States Commissioner to grant citizenship rights to Indians after the latter started sending flowers to the Commissioner (an act from the movie that changes the mindset of the negative character). It showed people how these principles could be applied in their routine life. The question however remains to what extent can it be applied and in which situations."

Out of 60 respondents, only 8 of them(13%) were of the view that they could achieve justice by following the path of Satyagraha. In support of their argument they gave examples of the peaceful protests that took place near India Gate in the recent past regarding the Jessica Lal murder case and Priyadarshini Mattoo rape case. However these 8 respondents were not fully in support of Satyagraha as an effective weapon for fighting injustice. It was clearly manifested when I gave them certain case situations as to what they would do if they know that their parents were being harassed by some government officials and were asked to give the officers some bribe so that they could get their pension. All of them agreed that they would rather pay the bribe rather than confront the government officials demanding bribe stating 'aajkal to yeh karna padta hain' (now-a-days we have to do it).

On being asked the relevance of the idea of Satyagraha among the younger generation in India, they were of the view that the concept has lost its importance, but still they had a hope that there is a possibility for the revival of such an idea if more people come to appreciate its power. Words like 'idealism', 'utopia', 'impractical', 'a thing of past', 'a soft method' were used to refer to Satyagraha. Majority (75%) of the students thought that Satyagraha would be effective only in the long run. Some of their responses could be presented as follows:

"We do not know which way to go. India is facing a moral crisis where good people hardly get anything and bad people do achieve a lot. What Gandhi practised then is hard to replicate in our everyday lives."

"In contemporary societies, practicality rules and one needs to be rational in one's thinking. This is not to say that Satyagraha was irrational but one cannot live with those ideas in this merciless world. If we say that it exists in our lives, then it is a utopia."

"We are in a paradoxical situation. We need it as much as we don't. Truth and non-violence are things which give us hope but only idealists follow this path. Now-a-days there is no place for idealism. Democracy and Humanity are like myths."

"Satyagraha is effective in the long run but we don't have patience to wait for long to get justice. Satyagraha might have been effective during freedom struggle. Aaj ke samay mein satya ki hamesha jeet nahi hoti" (In contemporary times, truth does not always triumph.)


Understanding 'Gandhigiri'/ Satyagraha

From the above responses, one need not arrive at the conclusion that the younger generation have become disillusioned with the idea of Satyagraha. They are in sympathy with the non-violent forms of protest, but are apprehensive about its acceptance in a society where Gandhigiri has become a mere mockery. They felt that Satyagraha is indispensable, be it in any society. This film offered a site on which desires, aspirations, fears and anxieties of the younger generation could be communicated. Most of them perceived that in Lage Raho Munna Bhai, Gandhi represents not a historical figure so much as an idea embodying contemporary society's deep desire for redemption. In an anxious society ridden by caste, class, ethnic and communal conflicts, the film, however, visualizes a Utopian world where the perpetrators of violence and corruption are magically transformed by the power of love. Though they found the principles of Satyagraha to be 'impractical', still they feel that the society could be a better place to live in, if Gandhi remains in the hearts and minds of people. They seem to be optimistic that the film is also non-judgmental about those who have forgotten Gandhi. Lage Raho Munna Bhai starts to see present day India as a betrayal of Gandhi's sacrifices, including his martyrdom. The irony of a Gandhi, who is so out of place in today's world, is premised upon our recognizing that, in its claims of "newness," India is leaving some core values behind, including its very foundations in anti-colonialism. The only need of the hour then is to introspect and embrace the Gandhian philosophy. However, the basic question that remains unanswered is - who is going to take this responsibility? Can we really blame the younger generation for being indifferent to Gandhian values and ideals? Or is it the responsibility of those in power to set examples of 'Gandhigiri' as an ideal?

Source: Gandhi Marg, Vol. 32, No. 2, July-September 2010

* This paper was presented earlier with the title "Screening Satyagraha: Reflections on the Hindi Film 'Lage Raho Munna Bhai" in the Satyagraha Centenary International Conference on 'Globalization of the Gandhian Way: Sociology, Politics and Science of Satyagraha (1906-2006)', held during 13 -20 November; 2007 at Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. I would like to thank Prof. Satish Deshpande and Mr. Tila Kumar for their comments and suggestions in drafting this paper. My students from Sri Venkateswara College, Delhi, also deserve special thanks for being a part of this endeavour.

PRANTA PRATIK PATNAIK is pursuing his Ph.D. at the Department of Sociology, University of Delhi. Contact: Room No-56 B, Gwyer Hall Hostel, Mall Road, University of Delhi (North Campus), Delhi-110007. E-mail: