In 1975, an angry young man lashed out at the system, questioned the cruel ironies of God’s will inside a temple, and turned to a life of crime. His brother, an obedient son and fashionable cop, has nothing on him in terms of material wealth, resources and success. But, with arguably one of the greatest one-liners of Hindi cinema, Shashi Kapoor silenced Amitabh Bachchan (Vijay): “Mere paas maa hai”. Since the release of Deewar, and more recently with doctoral students in the film studies departments studying Bollywood, there has been a lot of talk about the film’s themes and their symbolism. The “system” that produced the crime of Vijay, the dominant power in the country, was Congress under Indira Gandhi. Cut to 2021. Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra is now the underdog – and unke paas behan hai.
In an interview about the election campaign in Uttar Pradesh earlier this week, Gandhi-Vadra invoked Deewar and trusted his “sisters”, female voters. As simple political lines say, it’s not as convoluted as “Jupiter’s escape speed” nor as concise as “garibi hatao”. And no one can object to focusing on the voter as a political principle or strategy. But there is something poignant about the fact that a descendant of what was the first family of Indian politics is, if only metaphorically, one without “bangla, gaadi, daulat, shohrat”. Comfort, as in Shashi Kapoor, is the invocation of a filial bond.
The lesson here, if any, is not the truism that political fortunes change. Yep, mainstream art has a lot more resonance and longevity than little beards. Like motherhood and apple pie, there is something comforting about the political mind in India leaning on Deewar, Sholay or Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam. They bind the top and the bottom, the Nehru-Gandhi and its so-called behans. In an age when politics offer more lows than highs, there is nothing to be laughing at.