This article first appeared on Business Standard on 27/10/2017.
Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi seems to have fallen through a black hole and emerged a different man. Once the butt of cruel jokes, Rahul Baba has discovered a visceral sense of humour — both online and offline — and his favourite target is none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Last week, he was advising the PM to hug US President Donald Trump (Modi has done it in the past), when the later said the US was developing a better relationship with Pakistan. And on Monday, during an election rally in Gujarat, he called the goods and services tax (GST) the “Gabbar Singh Tax”.
This is the gold standard of political rhetoric. It’s irrelevant if Rahul Gandhi came up with the metaphor or his speech writer. The stone — a mix of witticism and popular culture reference that even the witless would not miss — hit the hornet’s nest with the accuracy of a guided missile. Two days later, Rahul Gandhi extended the Sholay reference on Twitter, by equating it to: “yeh kamaimujhe de do (give me all your income)” — an obvious adaptation to Gabbar’s dialogue: “Yeh haathmujhede deThakur (Thakur give me your hands).” Of course, everyone knows this — and every other dialogue — in “The Greatest Story Ever Told” by heart, even though the movie released 42 years ago.
But what interest me more is the character Rahul Gandhi has chosen: Gabbar Singh. In its hundred-year history, Bollywood has had no paucity of memorable characters: Raj Kapoor’s Raj, Dilip Kumar’s Salim, Manoj Kumar’s Mr Bharat, Vijay and Shahenshah of Amitabh Bachchan, Khiladi of Akshay Kumar, and Shah Rukh Khan’s Rahul. Among “villains” or negative characters, there is even more variety: Mogambo, Shakal, Dr Deng. Yet no one comes close to the pure evil of Gabbar. He is, as he himself claims, the stuff of legend. Even though he is nine scenes in the nearly three-and-a-half-hour-long movie, Gabbar Singh, played by Amjad Khan, stands the tallest, in a film full of memorable characters.
Khan and director Ramesh Sippy shot the unforgettable “Kitne aadmi the” scene, where Gabbar Singh first appears, 40 times. Early in it, the dacoit reminds his associates: “Yahan se pachas pachas kos door gaon mein jab bachcharaat ko rota hai, toh maa kehti hai bete soo ja... soo janahitoh Gabbar Singh aa jayega (In villages 50 km from here when a child cries in the night, the mother says sleep my son, sleep else Gabbar Singh will come.)” Newcomer Khan and Ramesh Sippy’s team shot the scene 40 times till they were satisfied with the hyena laughter and the picture of unadulterated evil. But, why? What keeps us mesmerised, transfixed even as Gabbar Singh laughs “teeno bach gaye” after playing an unequal Russian roulette with his three gang members who have failed him and then explodes into a volcanic laughter, before shooting them dead? Shreekant Sambrani describes it as “the primordial Mephistophelian trade-off”, the sheer fascination we have with watching evil at work (“Evil Incarnate”, Business Standard, August 21, 2015).
But there is something more here. Having killed the three dacoits who scooted from Ramgarh, scared of Jai and Veeru, Gabbar tells his gang members: “Jo dar gayasamjho mar gaya (The one who gets scared is dead).” To underscore his point, he spit out tobacco juice. The weapon that Gabbar uses — more than gunpowder and horses — is pure fear. He has a monopoly for distributing it. Terror is the currency with which he buys supplies from the villagers. If they start paying him back in his own coin, then the pincer grip he has on them will slacken. The electric wire tension which runs through Sholay is composed of this terror and the righteous retribution orchestrated by Thakur. But as Rahul Gandhi has shown us, the bridge between fear and funny is a short one.
A slight detour: In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) — arguably, the best Potter novel and film — when Professor Lupin (David Thewlis) teaches the Patronus Charm to repel dementors to his Defence against the Dark Arts class, he uses a bogart. No one knows what bogarts look like because the shape-shifting monster takes on the figure of whatever one fears the most. So for Ron, suffering from arachnophobia, the bogart becomes a spider, and for Neville, it is none other than Professor Snape. Teaching them the Riddikulus charms to repel a bogart: “What really finishes a bogart is laughter.”
This is not to suggest that the Bharatiya Janata Party is a bogart or a dementor, but its election game plan in Gujarat — which will go to polls in December — have been rather boorish and divisive. As Aakar Patel writes: “Since 1989, BJP has contested 1,300 Lok Sabha and Assembly seats in Gujarat and nominated not one Muslim as a candidate (“BJP and the art of excluding Muslims”, Business Standard, October 27, 2017).” It is the same policy it followed in Uttar Pradesh earlier this year, reaping rich dividends — as it has in Gujarat in all these decades. Yet, suddenly now, it seems a tad jittery, a little unsure. Could it be the laughter their arch competitor, Rahul Gandhi, is invoking prompting a rethink in the ruling party?
It can only be conjecture, but the delay by the Election Commission of India in declaring the voting dates for Gujarat has only sparked more criticism. Justifying the delay, Chief Election Commissioner A K Joti said the model code of conduct for the election would have hampered the flood relief work in the state. However, according to a number of news reports, this claim flatly contradicts the state government’s own record, which — according to The Wire — shows the work was completed weeks, if not months, ago. The Opposition and neutral observers have called this a travesty of the democratic process. On the other hand, various reports have shown how BJP leaders in Gujarat went on a spending spree, making full use of this opportunity. Such manoeuvres are more than a little difficult to defend.
Of course, while it is happy to take pot-shots at everyone, the BJP has shown little tolerance for jokes directed at it. Earlier this week, STAR Plus was allegedly pulled off Comedian Shyam Rangeela’s act of imitating Modi, along with Rahul Gandhi, for its The Great Indian Laughter Challenge. Rangeela reported that the channel had told him that he could imitate Rahul Gandhi but not Modi. A case of preventive self-censorship, but not without reason: Earlier this year, Radio Mirchi scrapped its popular Mitron programme after complaints from senior BJP leaders. One wonders: What is this allergy to comedy?
As another election comes hurtling towards us, amidst the ruins of promises of economic growth and development, is this a fear of laughter, of the carnivalesque? One is reminded a popular ditty from the absolutely forgettable 1991 Madhuri Dixit-Jackie Shroff starrer 100 Days: “Gabbar Singh yeh kehkargaya, / jo dar gayawoh mar gaya (Gabbar Singh has said this, / One who gets scared is dead).”