The Rachel Papers

When Booker Comes to Bollywood

Rachel Dwyer is Professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema at SOAS, University of London
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The central character badly needs that award to emphasise his heroism

I WILL NEVER FORGET my heartbreak when the first school prize was announced when I was ten. It was the neatness prize for which the main criterion was good handwriting. At university, in the days before word processing, I had to read my essays aloud because of the backward- sloping scrawl. Even I couldn’t read it, much to everyone’s amusement.

There is something childish about the idea of prizes, such as the dog Muttley in the cartoon Wacky Races whose desire to win a medal and his being stripped of his medals by his sidekick, Dick Dastardly, was as loved as much as his wheezy laugh.

Yet there are also many prizes for adults. It makes sense in the context of something like a village show, and in the north-east of England the vegetable shows and village fairs were big news. My mother always won the cake prize, so they seemed right and proper to me. She became a judge to give others a chance, or so I believe.

There are military medals, which are won not in competition but for outstanding acts of bravery and heroism, and most countries have national honours systems for civilians. Sporting medals lie at the heart of the event, and the focus on winning them in Nitish Tiwari’s Dangal (2017), is part of the film’s own excitement. The Nobel Prize is the major one to win, and every year the literature prize seems to generate more angst than any other, in particular its award to Bob Dylan.

Film prizes are also much debated and a look back at the films which missed out always makes them seem rather pointless. Perhaps they just shouldn’t be taken too seriously. I always enjoy India’s annual Oscar outrage which seems misplaced as there have been winners, notably Satyajit Ray’s Lifetime Achievement, but also because films don’t win for being ‘the best’ but for ticking a number of boxes. And no Hollywood film has ever won a Filmfare Award, I believe.

There are also the really serious prizes. This week’s Booker Prize is one of the major ones. It’s always fun to watch—although sad when one’s friends don’t win. Prizes for books are great marketing tools and also provide journalists with an easy subject for a column. I was expecting more outrage over the absence of ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ but perhaps it was just that it didn’t fit the right categories. They also induce a great middlebrow anxiety as ‘must reads’. I always feel that I’m just about keeping pace when I’ve read a couple of them.

I recall the Booker Prize in two Indian films. Ravi Chopra’s Baghban, (2003) is based on many earlier films from Hollywood, Japan, middle and other Indian language cinemas. A retired couple, Raj Malhotra (Amitabh Bachchan), and his wife Pooja (Hema Malini), are mistreated by their children who do not want the burden of looking after them. He writes a novel about this situation and wins the Booker Prize.

Amitabh Bachchan is not an unlikely person to play the role of a Booker Prize winner in Ravi Chopra’s Baghban, given his offscreen literary associations through his father

Amitabh is not an unlikely person to play the role of a Booker Prize winner, given his offscreen literary associations through his father, Harivansh Rai Bachchan, his poetry readings and his roles in art films from those of Satyajit Ray to Sai Paranjpe.

However, in Leena Yadav’s Shabd, (2005), Sanjay Dutt strains credibility in his role as Shaukat Vasisht, a Booker Prize winner. Dutt is brilliant in roles such as his two Munna Bhais when he brings his genius as a crook with a golden heart to the screen. These roles also fit his offscreen image of a wild child who means well but often goes off the rails.

Films often show the central character winning a prize to emphasise their heroism. Sometimes the prizes seem small compensation for the suffering that won them. In Mehboob Khan’s Mother India, (1957), Radha (Nargis as Mother India) is given the honour of inaugurating a new dam. Its construction ought to have saved her family from many of its travails by preventing floods and providing them with water and power, but the ending is not a happy one. Her husband ran away after a suffering a crippling injury in the fields, she loses two sons (it seems) in the floods, and she shoots her favourite son in the back as he tries to abduct the moneylender’s daughter.

In Yash Chopra’s Deewaar (1975), an urbanised update in many ways of Mother India, the award of a medal is a framing device. Sumitra Devi (Nirupa Roy) is given a medal for framing her beloved son Vijay. He had become a criminal so she sides with her younger son, the policeman Ravi, who fatally shoots Vijay, who dies in his mother’s arms in a temple.

In Raj Kapoor’s Shri 420 (1955), Raj has an honesty medal which he symbolically pawns on arrival in Bombay. He receives Rs 40 which is stolen straight away. He later goes to reclaim his medal and he meets Vidya (‘Knowledge’, Nargis) who is forced to sell her father’s books due to poverty. He tells her that honesty is worth nothing, only money matters. Vidya argues with him and he is brought to his senses.

The fierce competition to win prizes at children’s parties is managed by parents who try to ensure that everyone is rewarded. This idea of fairness is found in public policy, notably positive discrimination or reservations in India, which seeks to remove social inequality. Does this idea of fairness mean that rewards and prizes, which suggest a meritocracy, must be removed or that they must be seen to be distributed without bias?

Indian society is hierarchical, where one knows one’s place by birth largely. Caste is ascribed at birth and education enforces privilege. Elites form close social networks and one lives with one’s social group throughout one’s life. Foreigners are always incredulous how everyone they know seems to know or be related to everyone else in metropolitan India. Among the elites that I am familiar with (including film, academic, journalistic, publishing, and so on), people have known each other since school or college and their parents and other relatives are part of these extensive networks. This is certainly true for my age group, the baby boomers, born in the 1950s and 1960s. Although the old elites remain, many new social groups are forming who are accessing their positions of privilege.

For the non-elites, there is a desire to be recognised, to count, to become visible. In Deewaar, Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan), as in his other films, acquires public respect and is acknowledged because of his style and his coolness, manifested in his dress and his language. It is, of course, in his famous speech where he boasts of his public successes that his brother points out that he may not have all this but he has their mother: ‘Mere paas Maa hai’. Vijay and Ravi’s father lost his respect and abandoned his family. It is the plot device of the giving of the medal at the beginning and end of the film that shows that public respect will be acknowledged and the good citizen is deserving of acknowledgement.

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