Gadar 2: Regressive on morals, insured on mass culture

Unlike films like The Kerala Story, where the ideology is embedded in the drama, in Gadar 2, the ideology floats one layer above, focussed on adrenaline.

Published : Sep 07, 2023 11:00 IST - 7 MINS READ

A man works on the pavement in front of a wall painted with scenes from Gadar 2 in Mumbai. August 2023.

A man works on the pavement in front of a wall painted with scenes from Gadar 2 in Mumbai. August 2023. | Photo Credit: PUNIT PARANJPE/AFP

I was antsy and grumbling, seated at 47-A, an art gallery buried in the belly of Khotachiwadi, a heritage village in Mumbai full of slowly crumbling old-Portuguese style architecture. As I sat through a frustratingly recursive conversation around nostalgia centring everyone’s attention on the exhibition—titled “Everyday India”, a grandiose, overconfident sweep that sets up the exhibition, any exhibition, to fail—I was struck by the inherent irony of the moment. A hermetically sealed art world trying desperately to articulate the cadence and texture of everyday life. The exhibit was choked with images of product design, from roadside soorma (kohl) to artisanal coffee, glue, calendars, Parle G, Boroline, Uncle Chips. It displayed the unstudied maximalism, the kitsch, of Indian design by pasting these rowdily conceived objects against a snow-white background and neatly lining them up, horizontally and vertically, on the less snowy grey walls. Fetishising a rainbow riot in the language of uncluttered minimalism.

There is an inherent friction in one world trying to tell the story of another, or trying to tell the story of a world you have jettisoned yourself out of. I stood stunned, in front of a bottle of “Desi Daru (Santra)” glued to the gallery wall, wondering what a strange interaction it was. There was a chafing here, which of course no gallery will foreground because it requires a way of thinking with and not around class difference and of different, often competing, ideas of beauty. No one addressed the uncomfortable question that loomed in the air—do we grow out of these ideas of beauty as we accumulate education, money, social status? Suddenly, an everyday product became a sociological artefact.

It is in moments like these that the distance between the two sealed off worlds—“mass culture” and “high culture”—seems most disturbingly clear. Fredric Jameson in his essay “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture” rails against this opposition, this “conception of mass culture as sheer manipulation” and high culture as “an establishment phenomenon, irredeemably tainted by its association with institutions, particularly the university”.

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The schism seems to be in their approach to criticism. Mass culture conceives of itself beyond criticism. It barks, of what use is a review of Gadar 2 ? It is why Jameson, in his essay, spends time to intensely critique the themes of popular films like Jaws and The Godfather—as a negating response to the idea that popular films are beyond criticism, that there is nothing there to critique.

In this conception, high culture, on the other hand, can only be understood, in most if not all cases, through criticism. For example, why am I unable to look away from the gorgeous, strangely hypnotic lines of Nasreen Mohamedi?

Mistaking a mirage for a mirror

There is something broken about this distinction. For a while now, I have been worrying over something I have noticed in the genre of film criticism, which might extend to art criticism of any kind. This desire to reduce a film to its ideas, its themes, and critiquing the themes as though you were critiquing the film. What a film “is” is replaced by what a film is “about”. It is the kind of criticism that mistakes a movie for a manifesto. I too cosy up to this accusation, guiltily and often. It is perhaps also an anxiety of imminent societal collapse, given the communal fires raging in our country and the only thing we feel we have control over are ideas, not aesthetics, which are slippery and un-graspable. To posture a spine in a time of jellied spines.

But, for a moment, can we lay aside what the poet Yannis Ritsos calls “the humble hypocrisy of heroism”? The ideas, after all, are apparent, articulate, and easily amenable to arguments. The sensuality of a film, its strange audiovisual power, however, requires a rigour of thought, a patience for fixation, and a passion for language to express it best.

Sometimes the worst thing that can happen to a film is film criticism because it refuses to see a film for what it is. But one says worst because, on the one hand, where Kant described art as “finality without an end”, critics insist on milking that end, as though it exists, as though that is all there is to it—a complete negation of the means that meander to that end. We mistake a mirage for a mirror.

  • There is something broken about the distinction between high culture and mass culture.
  • Sometimes the worst thing that can happen to a film is film criticism because it refuses to see a film for what it is
  • There is something to be said about the still-raging success of Gadar 2.
  • While the consensus around Gadar 2 is that it is regressive, what tends to get lost in the conversation is the sheer visceral force of the film.

Sheer visceral force

Let us look at the still-raging success of Gadar 2, the sequel to Gadar (2001). Its popularity is vindication of a film released two decades ago, which derives its emotional tailspin from Pakistani villainy as much as it leans on Pakistani affection. Both films involve Tara Singh (Sunny Deol) blazing into Pakistan and extricating a loved one from the grip of a Pakistani villain. In the first film, it was his wife, Sakina (Amisha Patel). In the sequel, it is his son, Charanjeet (Utkarsh Sharma). The film, like most commercial films, is neatly structured. The first half establishes the son and the father’s love. The second half is a rat-tat-tat collection of chase sequences.

While this predictable structure feels like a filmmaker leaning too heavily on the insurance of an assured box office, the structure itself could be said to exist out of love for an audience.

The consensus around Gadar 2 is that it is regressive, in both morals and aesthetics. The filmmaking has an aged—not wine but milk—quality, and its messaging is mossy. The antagonist is a Pakistani general, traumatised by Partition violence when he lost his family, expressing his trauma by beheading Hindu heads placed over the Bhagavad Gita.

A counterpoint is the presence of Pakistanis who both welcome Tara Singh and help him find his son—so the villain is Pakistani and not Pakistan. Another counterpoint is the film’s concerted effort to insist, loudly and clearly, that India is a country for Muslims, Hindus, Christians, and Sikhs. At this point, one can question why, through the film, Tara Singh, a Sikh, is referred to as a Hindu; you can see in this the larger Hindutva project of subsuming Sikhism within Hinduism.

But this back-and-forth, this dialectic, only extends the life of the argument, with neither point negating the other but merely complicating the neatness. It would be incorrect to call the film Pakistan’s nightmare. It would be incorrect to call the film a secular dream.

Also Read | ‘The Kerala Story’ is greedy in its impulse to demonise Muslims

What tends to get lost in the conversation is the sheer visceral force of the film. Sunny Deol, for all his shortcomings as an actor, inundates the screen when he screams or when he runs in slow motion. The brute force, the blunt-edged sincerity with which he expresses anger stuns you. The visceral performance produces a kind of emotional rupture that sucks you into the world that he inhabits in the film. The ideology that powers this rupture floats one layer above the film—it exists but is never embodied in it because the film is focussed on looking for adrenaline. As opposed to The Kashmir Files or The Kerala Story where the ideology is embedded in the drama of the film, where to buy into the drama you had to buy into the ideology.

The deep suspicion of cinema as a vehicle for mass communication is what causes critics to fixate on the ideas that are either latent or conspicuous in it. This is one of the many casualties of a collapsing society—it produces a kind of criticism that is so vigilant, so on tenterhooks that it forgets the sensuous possibilities of cinema.

Criticism can bring rigour to the aesthetic experience and the moral force that permeates or sometimes floats above the aesthetic experience. When you let go of that rigour or apply it selectively, you get hollow exhibitions or over-saturated cinema as two opposing ends of a spectrum that could have, should have, been one collapsible point.

Prathyush Parasuraman is a writer and critic who writes across publications, both print and online.

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