Disappointing Fare

B eing the first commercial film to treat some of the issues raised by the Gujarat carnage, and also being directed by Govind Nihalani, a filmmaker known for sensitive representations of communal violence like Tamas, Dev has generated widespread expectations, appreciation and debate. Many sensitive documentaries which have covered the terrain of the state-sponsored pogrom against Muslims show that after Gujarat it is no longer possible to speak about the unbalanced equations between the majority and various minority communities in terms of comparable culpability, and that such a position is at best disingenuous, and at worst, dangerous.

To watch the latest offering by Govind Nihalani, Dev, is therefore quite disturbing and disappointing in its treatment of the deep and systematic communalization of the arms of the state witnessed in Gujarat. One’s unquiet starts with the fact the central character whose perspective the film upholds is a policeman - Dev Pratap Singh, Joint Commissioner, (Bacchan). Your first sight of this hero is in the opening shot where he kills a student leader who expresses irreverence and vulgar contempt for the law and justifies it as upholding the law and maintaining its dignity. For, in his words, if people do not fear the police, then there could be no hope for the force in performing its duties. The student turns out to be a Muslim – and, whether intended or not, his arrogance towards the law is all too likely to be perceived as a ‘Muslim’ trait. But when Muslims themselves smell a communal bias in the shootout, they are ‘guilty’ of the ‘typical Muslim trait’ of perceiving a straightforward law and order issue as a communal one. Dev reprimands Muslims who protest against this shooting, claiming he was unaware that the student leader he has shot was a Muslim and that in upholding law and order, he does not discriminate between a Hindu and a Muslim. He sermonises the Muslims to hand over anti-nationals who take refuge in their madarsas, and such sermons from the man who is presented as the ‘ideal’, the dev (god), only reinforce communal stereotypes about the Muslim community. Dev has lost a son to ‘terrorists’ (Muslim), but in a truly saintly way, bears no grudge; it is his decision to forgive Farhaan who has been ‘misled’ by Muslim community leaders into attempting to kill him in revenge for shooting the student leader, which wins over Farhaan. (What’s the message: Hindu ‘tolerance’ combined with firmness can correct the delinquent Muslim youth, much as a father corrects a wayward son?). He is also a dear friend of Tejinder Khosla (Puri), senior police officer on special duty, who is openly communal, and eventually commits suicide tormented by his conscience.

The film does depict the planned violence against Muslims supervised by the police, the corrupt Hindu politician Mangalrao (Gunaji), who organises this violence with the backing of the Chief Minister of the state, in which Dev is only preoccupied with doing the right thing. (In fact, they show that Mangalrao touches the CM’s feet and asking for blessings before going on the rampage). But for all that, the film shows us that violence whether by Hindus in riots or Muslims in a demonstration against police firing, are politically incited ‘riots’, and thus at the same level of moral culpability. For instance, after the shooting of the student leader, a peaceful protest procession by Muslims of the turns violent as the protesters incited by Latif hurl stones and Molotov cocktails at the police. A firing and much unrest later, Latif, the minority leader, decides that attention needs to be diverted, and organizes the bombing outside a local Ganapati temple—uncannily evoking the attack on Akshardham temple. In the same manner as Godhra is blamed for what happened in Gujarat, Dev reminds Farhaan that the blast outside the temple is the cause for all the violence in its wake.

In the scheme of this film, we see shades of grey, the communal police officers, the corrupt politician who is willing to sacrifice the dignity and very life of those he represents for the possibility of power in the government, and the daring portrayal of an ascetic looking CM whose invisible support is with Mangalrao, who is shown to lead sword bearing rioters and rapists. After Gujarat, to show this in mainstream cinema is daring. But what is most unsatisfactory is that unlike the many other film representations of Gujarat, the narrative is from the perspective of the idealized policeman, not the individuals who continue to be at the receiving end. A more interesting and sensitive point of view could have been that of Aaliya (Kareena), politically astute and unusual in her daring to defy threats and lodge an FIR publicly, or Farhaan who reminds his father that the romanticism of composite nationalism has long since dissipated, because minorities are repeatedly being reminded of their position. Instead, the idealization in the figure of Dev, – who is after all part of the state machinery and believes that state terror is a method to maintain law and order, no matter if the police violates human rights to uphold its dignity – renders this film problematic. Dev leaves you with the feeling that one has seen the good and bad Muslims and Hindus often enough. The film despite some strengths, can’t break out of the “good cop fights corrupt system” mould familiar to several Bachhan films, and despite notable exceptions, often succumbs to facile stereotyping of communities.

­— Parnal Chirmuley