Yudh: The story thus far

Published : Aug 06, 2014 12:30 IST

Amitabh Bachchan with actors Sarika and Aahana Kumra at a promotional event for his upcoming television show 'Yudh' in New Delhi on on June 11.

Amitabh Bachchan with actors Sarika and Aahana Kumra at a promotional event for his upcoming television show 'Yudh' in New Delhi on on June 11.

IN his grand plunge into the genre of the tele-serial with Yudh , Amitabh Bachchan multitasks as a builder-miner-husband-father-multimillionaire who is, from the word go, in the thick of a mysterious and elaborate corporate rivalry which threatens his business interests and his life. As if that were not enough, he is afflicted by the rare Huntington’s disease. The task he is proving best at so far is in personifying the disease. He wields the symptomatic ticks, jerks, involuntary paroxysms, uncoordinated muscle movements and hints of delusion or dementia associated with the illness with a panache that leaves us awestruck and bracing against another Huntington moment whenever the circumstances lead to rising tension in a scene with him in it. It is for knowledgeable medical opinion to rule whether this is indeed how a Huntington patient would behave off camera, but Bachchan’s rendition of it certainly carries conviction. If his consummate handling of the disease nevertheless comes across as just a shade grandiloquent rather than debilitating, that is in the nature of how much the actor chooses to stylise its experience and expression.

On a tonal scale of performance, Bachchan keeps his Huntington disease act in the lower mellowed dramatic registers, in contrast to, say, the high-strung, melodramatic ardour with which the “actor’s actor”, Sivaji Ganesan, pursued the simple (actually bloody) cough in the Tamil opus of yesteryear, Vasantha Maaligai (“Palace of Spring”). Sivaji’s devastating coughing fits in this film of the early 1970s, remade in Hindi as Prem Nagar with Rajesh Khanna doing the coughing, were of the rending-the-screen-asunder variety. Tamil cinema and popular culture to this day lampoon, fondly not unkindly, the thespian’s expectorating range. That was, of course, another time, another audience, and another medium—viewed collectively with ritualistic fervour in the liturgical setting of the darkened cinema hall. The coughing, like much else in the film, went down so well because it was so over the top, in a manner demanding, and definitive, of the iconic star’s performative prowess, and fetched the repeat viewership that made such films runaway hits. Vasantha Maaligai had an uninterrupted run of over two years at the box office when it was first released and has very recently been digitally resurrected.

But to return to Yudh , the mood and mise en scene here are sombre and subdued, emit a sense of habituated wealth without lavishness, evoke interiority both spatially and in terms of the characters. A hand held camera, for the most part, concentrates on close-ups, giving the frames that slight movement that invests them with a live tentativeness. The editing is crisp and anticipatory, often using dialogue overlaps to good segueing effect. The casting is near impeccable. Apart from Bachchan in the pivotal role of Yudhishthir (Yudh), Zakir Hussain as Anand, his trusted lieutenant, Aahana Kumra as Taruni, his daughter, Ayesha Raza as Nayantara, his second wife (Sarika plays Gauri, his first wife, now remarried), Pavail Gulati as Rishikesh, his son with Nayantara, Mona Wasu as Mona, his public relations secretary, and Tigmanshu Dhulia as the shady politician in dark glasses slip into their roles with flair and ease. Zakir Hussain is particularly striking with his quiet, deliberate, more-unspoken-than-spoken manner and nuanced expressiveness. Almost all of the other characters, even the walk-on parts, look as if they belong to, rather than don, their roles—except when it comes to the workers in the mine worked by Yudh.

Stereotype to humanise corporate greed

When the workers rise in revolt after a blast in the mine (a sabotage arranged, unknown to them, by a fixer-broker from their own ranks) kills one of them and injures others, Yudh has this placatory meeting with them where he is on high ground and they are arrayed below, initially looking up at him with anger, but as soon as he has told them how they are all a family and announced liberal financial compensation for the kin of the dead and for the injured, looking up to him with gratitude. They nod all too readily and trustingly in agreement when he delivers his pious speech—haven’t we seen this in ever so many films, some of them in which Bachchan himself has perhaps mouthed the near same lines, where the workers are anonymised as a gullible and mentally, not to mention intellectually, inert collective entrusting their destiny in the hands of their class enemy? This is a corporatised perversion of the Gandhian theory of Trusteeship and has played havoc with class dialectics in film after mainstream film in India. It jars in Yudh only because the rest of it seems so meticulously verisimilitudinous. When it comes to workers, the mazdoor s, why should they appear so genetically daft?

This is where the serial already begins to fall into a stereotype. The director, Ribhu Dasgupta, who gets the look and feel and behavioural details of those inhabiting the affluent professional, familial and social circles in the serial just right, ducks, or doesn’t know or care, when it comes to the depiction of the local workers. They are treated one dimensionally as an amorphous mass with no minds of their own, swayed by this and that. They are “the other” who must be dealt with to keep the cocooned corporate lifestyle of our protagonist and his ilk safe and flourishing. It is too early yet in the serial to read between the lines, but one already has the nagging suspicion that the real theme, behind and beyond the ostensible plot of who is out to get Yudh and his business, may be making a grand case for the big corporate companies which want a free run of mineral-rich swathes of land in States like Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Bihar against the interests of the indigenous tribal people, other local communities and of the ecology. The ingredients are in place: the political-corporate nexus and tension, the naxalites or Maoists hovering menacingly on the margins (Yudh’s son, Rishi, has already been kidnapped by, and escaped from, them), the workers being incited by inimical agents against the company involved in the mining….

If that is how the subtext pans out, it will be of a piece with the exertions of these companies to garner favourable public mindspace for their mining projects against the odds they face. A high-powered serial may be more effective as a quiet persuader than interventions in, or seeking to influence, the mainstream news media. Or ploys like a national short-film competition about the imperative for growth in these areas that one of the biggest mining players had announced as part of its propaganda campaign. Humanise and paint corporate greed in warm philanthropic colours, and be seen as avatars of succour and growth for these deprived rural people, seems the general idea. Bachchan as Yudh is at it with a bleeding heart and with the added sympathy that the Huntington factor endows him. When his daughter, Taruni, asks him about the threat to his life he says he is more worried about whether his disease will allow him to fulfil his work, which, paraphrased, is ensuring the livelihood and welfare of the ten thousand workers dependent on him. Noblesse oblige is the reigning sentiment and where it will lead is to be seen, but it certainly is unlikely to be in the direction of empowerment of the workers or entitlement of the local populace to its natural resources. The ethical locus of Yudh , its vantage point, vests with the protagonist who exemplifies the builder-miner lobby and both interests, building and mining have particularly been in the grey area of our public life in recent times. That is the paradox and the problem of the serial.

stock-in-trade of serials

At another level, Bachchan acting in a TV serial could possibly remove the self-imposed restraint by film stars on moving to the small screen for fear that their standing in the industry may take a beating. Already, in languages with a vibrant cinema culture, the TV serial is another opening for second and third-tier film artistes. Even earlier, stars had lent themselves to corporate advertising for all kinds of products and services, the sole exceptions nationally being the Tamil superstars, Rajnikanth and Kamal Haasan, whose inaccessible mythical images, which are a more feudal-populist totemic construct, cannot be seen endorsing an ordinary consumerist item. The run-of-the-mill TV serial, the staple fare of the genre across TV screens of all Indian languages, may have nothing of the sophistication or refinement in treatment of a Yudh , and may, for the most part, be the same old Manichean theme progressed through the same old dialogues and more of the same old dialogues, but they share a common enduring preoccupation with the appetites and aspirations of the upper middle class. They are also, inexplicably, odd sartorial statements, with the characters, male or female, overdressed in elaborate designer clothing even when they are simply hanging about, or fomenting trouble, at home. It was perhaps the Hindi serial that set this trend, but it is faithfully followed almost across the board. Even in the narrow-based, but very consumer-savvy, Malayalam television, the stock-in-trade intra- and inter-domestic scheming and quarrelling take place as if on a fashion ramp.

The Tamil serial has been somewhat, refreshingly, different in this respect. The situations may be as contrived, the interactions between characters as wordy, and the wordplay as tedious as the rest, and the whole thing may be delivered as if on a conventional proscenium stage with punchy background score underlining the obvious “rasa” of the moment. But at least it is not a homogenised setting, and different serials do tend to representatively reflect different socio-economic categories. A long-running serial now on, Nadaswaram, for example, is squarely set in a lower-middle-class milieu and captures the earthy flavour, the idiomatic expressions and obsessive petty prides and prejudices of that segment with remarkable clarity. This range of types may have been made possible in Tamil by the deeper semi-urban and rural penetration of satellite and cable television networks in the State. As the cultural theorist Raymond Williams pointed out about the chronology of communication several decades back, networking precedes programming, and, as it appears in the context of the Tamil serial, determines programming.

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