ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Lage Raho Munna Bhai: Unravelling Brand 'Gandhigiri'

Gandhi, the man, was once the message. In post-liberalisation India, "Gandhigiri" is the message.

Lage Raho Munna Bhai: Unravelling Brand‘Gandhigiri’

Gandhi, the man, was once the message. In post-liberalisation India, “Gandhigiri” is the message.

ARUNABHA GHOSH, TAPAN BABU

I
n more than one sense, Lage Raho Munna Bhai (LRMB) is an unusual film. There is no semblance of continuity that is often the hallmark of a sequel. While the hero Munna and his companion Circuit got married and started a hospital at the end of the first film Munna Bhai MBBS (MBM), after Munna’s abortive attempt to do an MBBS, Munna is back to his original self of a local goon in LRMB to begin with. MBM, with a faint resemblance to the Robin Williams starrer Hollywood film Patch Adams, had a message of “Doctor Heal Thyself” with Munna healing the patients with love, compassion and camaraderie that are shown in direct contrast to the sub-human ethics of the medical profession.

LRMB does not start from the end of MBM. In fact, apart from the two central characters, viz, Munna and Circuit there are no common characters between LRMB and MBM. Munna’s field of experiment graduates from medicine to social life. With Munnabhai meeting Mahatma Gandhi, LRMB gave birth to a brand Munna along with brand “Gandhigiri”. While Hindi films are replete with illustrations of a character emerging almost as an icon, the blurring of a character with an otherwise real national figure is quite uncommon.

A Beginner’s Guide to LRMB

The film produced by Vidhu Vinod Chopra, directed by Rajkumar Hirani and scripted jointly by the duo is simple, racy, witty and uproariously funny. A softhearted goon Munnabhai falls in love with the voice of Jahnavi, a radio-jockey of a programme on World Space Satellite Radio and in his desperate bid to meet her participates in a dial-in quiz on Mahatma Gandhi on October 2 by forcing five experts at gunpoint to prompt the answers to the questions. Munnabhai wins the contest, meets Jahnavi, works with her for the Second Innings Home she runs for the aged and also at a radio programme, fights land sharks bent on grabbing the old people’s home with his ‘satyagraha’, falls out with Jahnavi as he discloses his identity and finally wins back the cherished house and the lady. Munna, despite being a goon, got exposed to Gandhi the person (in fact started hallucinating him), applied Gandhian techniques of non-violence in contemporary times and finally won.

Brand of LRMB Gandhism

Who is Munna’s Gandhi? Munna’s Gandhi perhaps is not someone distant and historical but someone with whom the contemporary masses can relate – more in the nature of the conscience personified (called the ‘bibek’) of traditional Bengali folk theatre, ‘jatra’. We will come to this issue later.

Ashish Nandy in an essay ‘Gandhi after Gandhi’ distinguished between four Gandhis.1 While the first Gandhi is the Gandhi of the Indian state and Indian nationalism, the second Gandhi is that of the Gandhians, who according to Nandy “does not touch 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 pompous bullies in every area of life. In some sense, perhaps all these Gandhis are alive today, each with his own eccentricities. While Nandy’s compartmentalisation of Gandhi could be a caricatured one, one tends to think that LRMB’s Gandhigiri is perhaps closer to the

Economic and Political Weekly December 23, 2006 fourth variety of Gandhi. In fact, almost echoing this sentiment, Abhijat Joshi, a co-author of the story of film said, “It was important for us to dispel the myth about Gandhi being a sedate, ascetic person. We wanted to show his other side – witty, humorous, light-hearted and creative”.2

Is Gandhi’s shunning of industrialism that spawns consumerism and related violence relevant in today’s India? Perhaps not. But that it is not a subject any filmmaker with commercial intent would dare to touch and understandably so. S Ganesh in his article ‘Lage Raho Munnabhai: History as Farce’ (EPW, October 14, 2006) misses this point when he sees Gandhi of LRMB in the historical perspective. The Gandhi of LRMB is not so much an historical figure as he is an icon of popular culture. In fact, the irrelevance of the Gandhian ideology is hinted and just so when Munna visits the Gandhi library that has not seen a footfall in years. He is the most welcome reader, worthy of being treated to tea. The irony is inescapable. A ‘bhai’, a don, whatever be his compulsion, is the sole consumer of the vast literature on Gandhi! Munna reads on – relentlessly and indefatigably. And voila` Gandhi appears to him, speaks to him, assures him of his advice whenever sought with true ardour.

The film shifts gear. The focus is firmly on the moral Mahatma – moral but not sentimental. Contrast another recent film Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara by the noted film-maker Jahnu Barua. The protagonist played by Anupam Kher suffers from a deep-rooted guilt caused by a childhood trauma. While playing with a cutout of Gandhi, someone hits it with a red colour filled balloon and the boy is punished by his father for killing Gandhi. The splashing of the cutout in red coincides with the breaking news of Gandhi’s assassination. The coalescence of a game and a national disaster eats into the boy throughout his life until he becomes severely paranoid after retirement, causing a collapse in his immediate world. The guilt of the nation in erasing Gandhi’s value system is depicted in microcosm. Jahnu Barua’s treatment is complex, layered, psychologically plausible, serious and a bit sentimental. This is where LRMB deftly negotiates the pitfall of sentimentality because it is clear about its target audience and its branding.

Does LRMB make Gandhi contemporary? Of the various terms initiated in the film, the term Gandhigiri has drawn much attention – so much as that there is a website called http://www.gandhigiri.org which says, “If Munnabhai can do then why can’t we do Gandhigiri”, and has submenus devoted to: Gandhigiri Forum, and Gandhigiri Blogs, Gandhigiri News and Mission Gandhigiri. There is yet another website called, http://www.gandhigiri.co.in devoted to the same subject. The episodes of Gandhigiri have cut across the ruralurban divide. There are reports that that the film inspired farmers in Vidarbha region to stage a protest with flowers as well as AIIMS students aspiring to gift roses with a “get well” card to the visiting health minister. There are reports that a UP-based mafia don was so inspired by LRMB that he wanted to distribute roses as a “message of love and peace”. All these are indeed fads and little to do with the contemporary reality. Given the short shelf life of a Bollywood film, all these fads will perhaps soon be extinct. Nevertheless, given the usual social content of a commercial Hindi film, it is indeed interesting to see these fads getting reflected in social life.

The brilliance of Munna’s healing strategy is that as Munna speaks the language of the next door Mumbai ‘tapori’ (the local friendly goon) it is extremely accessible to the common Mumbai slum dweller. If there is something common between the two films, MBM and LRMB, it is the language. In fact, in both the films the language that Munna and his associates use is set apart from that used by the rest. Yetit is this language that sets the agenda of discourse in and on popular culture. Language plays a crucial role in beefing up the brand. In a remarkable manoeuvre of communication skill, the street-smart Mumbai tapori lingo, peppered with slangs, is used to create instant communication with the audience, especially GenNext. Thus Gandhigiri stands for Gandhism (‘Gandhivad’) – a coinage that has proved so potent as to warrant a condemnation by the Indian National Congress (The Telegraph, October 10, 2006). Change of hearts is termed as “chemical locha”. In fact so potent and catchy is the medium of communication that Bapu himself cannot but use it, albeit in jest, to pick Munna’s brain.

Cinema and Popular Culture

Cinema and popular culture are inextricably linked – more so in India and particularly in Bollywood. The makers of LRMB have taken the route of popculture to pop up a non-statist view of Gandhi. Munna, Circuit and their cronies from the metropolitan underbelly know this much of Gandhi that his image is printed on currency notes, that October 2 is a “dry day”, that the name of his children are Indira Gandhi and Rajiv

Economic and Political Weekly December 23, 2006

Gandhi, that he had effectively spiked (‘Wat laga di’ in street or tapori lingo) the British, that to walk along his path is to take a walk along M G Road for 3 kms everyday.

What makes LRMB a cult film? It is instructive to turn to Umbarto Eco in this connection, who said,

What are the requirements for transforming...a movie into a cult object? The work must be loved, obviously, but this is not enough. It must provide a completely furnished world so that its fans can quote characters and episodes as if they were aspects of the fans private sectarian world...I think that in order to transform a work into a cult object one must be able to break, dislocate, unhinge it so that one can remember only parts of it, irrespective of their original relationship with the whole.3

One can give umpteen number of illustrations from LRMB which enunciates disconnects between the part from the whole. Nevertheless, to enter the realm of mass culture is to abjure the socio-economic and political thoughts of Gandhi, or so it seems in LRMB. It is safer for a Bollywood movie to repackage and market moralism through the iconic figure of Munnabhai from his earlier avatar with the other, the larger iconic figure of the Mahatma, superimposed on him.

In a cheeky reference to Gandhi being called bhai in South Africa, an audacious link is established between the Mahatma and Munna, one of the ways in which the Mahatma meets Munnabhai. Where Munna uses muscle power to get things done, Gandhi uses moral power. For Munna the end justifies the means, for the Mahatma the dichotomy between the means and the end is inconceivable. The Gandhi that Munna meets is a hallucinatory figure no doubt, but as he himself says he is not a spirit (‘atma’) but a consciousness (‘chetna’). It takes just a small step from consciousness to conscience.

So when Munna in his lecture to the elder citizens (prompted by Gandhi himself) talks about demolishing Gandhi’s statues, removing his images, erasing his name from buildings and roads and urges everyone to preserve the Mahatma’s name in one’s heart it touches an emotional chord in the public. The statist project of commemoration and the public perception of oblivion clash. That the institutionalised image of Mahatma Gandhi has been rendered hollow in today’s context is brought out by an unquiet conscience. When one of the old men suggests that the country has had its share of development it is rejected outright by Munna: electrical connections without power, roads with more potholes than macadam, schools without teachers, a corrupt bureaucracy that drives people to desperation – in short a country that Gandhi did not envisage, a country liberated from foreigners but where the people have turned strangers. It is as far as this political statement that the film will go. A step ahead and there is every chance of being mired in Gandhi’s socio-economic thoughts – a complete no-no for today’s consumer economy driven India.

Unravelling Brand Gandhigiri

Gandhi is not original in his preaching of truthfulness, forgiveness for the offender, or even non-violence. Remember St Mathew’s gospel in the The New Testament (Ch V, verse 39) – it is the same advice of turning the other cheek when slapped on one. Similarly, Gandhi himself acknowledged his debt to Thoreau and Tolstoi. Munna, hardly convinced by Gandhi about the technique, does not know what to do when the slap lands on the other cheek too. So he reverts to his core competence. He bashes up the offending security guard guarding the house of the civil contractor, the ultimate villain, Lucky Singh. Take another instance. Atmaram, abandoned in his old age home by his son, is to be given a rocking birthday party. Munna, with politeness, tries to persuade the son to attend the party even if for a short while. The head-strong man decides to physically fight it out with Munna. The result is effective violence, by dint of which Munna hangs him upside down from his 12th floor office and the man later joins the celebration with a huge cake and a lot of hoopla for his much happy father. Popular culture can be subversive and Gandhian non-violence is not spared either.

What is unique though of the Gandhian ethical scheme is the uprooting of fear. ‘Abhay’ or fearlessness comes from the courage to face truth. Since the real adversary resides within, it is a constant and continuous battle with the self. Goaded by Bapu, Munna asks Circuit for forgiveness and even reveals to Jahnavi his actual identity after a long spell of self-doubt and dithering. Once he does that his fear of Lucky Singh’s threat to expose him vanishes. Munna is no more subject to Lucky’s blackmailing. Overcoming fear is one lesson that Munna imparts successfully through his radio programme. Thus, he saves Victor from committing suicide and prompts him to confess blowing up money in the stock market to his father. Victor in his turn saves Simran, Lucky’s daughter, from the same fate. Simran gathers courage to reveal the truth about the timing of her birth concealed by her father to her prospective father-in-law. Reverting to non-Gandhian methods once more, Munna, in a climactic scene, rips the myth of astrological certainty shattering the fear of superstition.

But Gandhigiri as portrayed in the film has another angle to it. To bring the unscrupulous realtor Lucky Singh to his senses the listeners of the radio programme are exhorted to send flowers with a “get well soon” card attached. Whether it is friendly persuasion of the Quakerist kind or a method of psychological coercion is open to debate. The same applies to the person who smilingly mops up the spittle strewn around his door by a boorish neighbour. Or to the old teacher who offers everything on his person, including his clothes, to the clerk, as the bribe demanded for handing his pension papers. Thus satyagraha, the ethico-political tool that Gandhi had used to shake up an imperial power, is now an instrument to nail erring individuals. It is not ‘Gandhigiri’ over ‘dadagiri’ as S Ganesh has argued, it is perhaps a blurring of distinction, and not spoofing of history. It is a trivialisation no doubt – but a trivialisation necessitated by a decidedly debased contemporaneity. A link having been established between the bhais separated by almost a century, it is no wonder that Gandhigiri and dadagiri become implicitly interchangeable.

Gandhi, the man, was once the message. In the India of the post-liberalisation brand Gandhigiri is the message.

A parting word of thanks: LRMB has mercifully not attempted to update Gandhigiri on sex. Amen.

EPW

Email: arunabh2911@yahoo.co.in

Notes

1 Available at http://www.multiworld.org/

m_versity/althinkers/nandygan.htm. 2 Available at http://www.rediff.com///movies/

2006/sep/26joshi.htm. 3 Umberto Eco (1986): Trends in Hyperreality,

Picador, London.

Economic and Political Weekly December 23, 2006

To read the full text Login

Get instant access

New 3 Month Subscription
to Digital Archives at

₹826for India

$50for overseas users

Comments

(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top